It was tough enough for his friends and fans to see Bill Shoemaker confined to a wheelchair the last 12 years of his life. Imagine how hard it must have been for The Shoe.
Yet he never complained.
The life that for so long seemed so magical ended so sadly. Shoemaker came from nowhere--Fabens, Texas, actually--to become horse racing's biggest star. He was adored by fans, sought out by horsemen, and rubbed elbows with Hollywood celebrities. Oh, and he rode horses like no one else ever did.
Shoemaker had a magic touch. While some other jockeys relied on brute strength to get horses to do what they wanted, The Shoe used his hands to gently communicate with the animal. He usually got his way. As veteran trainer Noble Threewitt said of him, "He had something no other jockey ever will."
He loved life, sometimes a little too much. After a round of post-retirement golf and a few drinks at the 19th hole on April 8, 1991, Shoemaker rolled his Ford Bronco off a Southern California freeway embankment. The accident left him a quadriplegic. The racing hero lived out life as a tragic figure, albeit one who didn't ask for pity.
After the accident, The Shoe continued with his second career--training horses--for as long as his body could physically stand it, finally giving it up in 1997. Still, he came to the track on a regular basis, served as a spiritual leader and confidant to a younger generation of riders, and kept in touch with old friends.
He did his damnedest to keep his chin up and flash the tight little smile that found its way into countless scrapbooks. During his career, Shoemaker always made time for fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Kids loved him, because he almost seemed like one of them: all 4 foot 11, 100 pounds of him.
Shoemaker was an ambassador for the sport and was one of the few people in racing recognized wherever he went. In the 1980s, American Express had the clever idea of pairing him with 7-foot-1 basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain in a memorable print advertising campaign. When he decided to hang up his tack in 1990, racetracks around the world willingly anteed up to participate in The Shoe's farewell tour. His final race on Feb. 3, 1990, dubbed "The Legend's Last Ride," was broadcast live to a national television audience by ABC Sports.
How good was Shoemaker? The late Eddie Arcaro had more success in the Triple Crown, and Laffit Pincay Jr. won more races. But Shoemaker was "The Greatest," and those who believe it will never be convinced otherwise.
Great riders get the opportunity to ride great horses, and Shoemaker was no exception. From Swaps, Forego, and Damascus to Spectacular Bid and John Henry, Shoemaker found himself in horse heaven. It helped being the "go to" rider in the talent-rich stable of the late Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham. Charlie and The Shoe formed a powerful team, culminating their successful partnership in 1986 when Ferdinand gave Whittingham his first victory and Shoemaker his fourth in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Five years later, the gutsy ride--he dove Ferdinand through a narrow gap at the rail that opened and closed in an instant--was voted the greatest in history in a poll of jockeys and sportswriters by the New York Racing Association. The Shoe also gave a superb performance aboard Ferdinand in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), defeating 1986 Derby winner Alysheba by a nose.
The late Jim Murray, the longtime columnist for the Los Angeles, was to sportswriting what Shoemaker was to race-riding--an artist. On the eve of Shoemaker's retirement in 1990, Murray wrote, "Horses everywhere should be in mourning. They are losing their best friend."
And so now has racing.