I consider myself a lucky rarity among those who have taken up sports for both pleasure and as a profession. I don't mean that being a jockey hasn't been hard work, because it has. But I've enjoyed the hard work and everything about it. I've ridden a lot of horses—some 23,500 of them—over a period of 21 years. One year, 1953, I rode over 1,600 horses and won 485 races, a record that still stands. I've ridden about 1,000 horses in each of those 21 years, and I've enjoyed every minute of it, which puts me, I suppose, with the minority of people in the world who can get up each morning and honestly say to themselves, "I'm going to be happy doing what I have to do today."
In return for what I have been able to contribute to horse racing, the sport has been good to me. At the age of 38 I live a certain life of luxury, with a wonderful wife and children. Unlike the majority of professional athletes who spend many years in the minor leagues of their sport and often find themselves in slumps that may last months or even years, I somehow have been different from the start. When I got my first riding break, I managed to make it stick. In 21 years my mounts have accounted for a world-record $41 million plus in purses. My cut of this has been over $4 million, and I'm told that no athlete—even old-timers like Dempsey and Tunney, or my own contemporaries like Willie Mays and Arnold Palmer—has come close to earning $4 million purely through his own athletic accomplishments.
I mention this only through a sense of pride and not at all in a bragging way, because I am proud of my profession as a jockey and I am the first to realize that without lots of luck and assistance along the way it would have been impossible. After all, it is a pretty unlikely situation: a kid from Texas standing 4'11½" and weighing only 100 pounds, who today finds himself in the position of never having to lift a finger for the rest of his life. But I have no desire to quit. As long as I feel good and feel that I can perform well, I will probably go on riding.
Considering the number of races I've competed in, I'm lucky I haven't been injured more often. The fall I had at Santa Anita in 1968 was the result of a freak accident, and I'm lucky I suffered nothing more serious than a broken leg. Last year, a few days before I would have ridden Arts and Letters in the Derby, a horse flipped over backward and landed on top of me in the paddock at Hollywood Park, injuring my pelvis and bladder. But I came back sooner than expected and I feel better now than I ever did.
I have achieved most of my ambitions—outside of a few Kentucky Derbies I managed to lose—and along the way I've won 5,855 races. I'm only 177 behind the record held by my boyhood hero, Johnny Longden, and if I can keep on I might get his record and still go another seven or eight years.
Luck plays an important part in everyone's life, but at no time did it serve me better than on my first day on earth. My father was a cotton farmer and he lived in a little town called Fabens, about 30 miles from El Paso. I was born there on Aug. 19, 1931. My father was an average-sized man, about 5'11" and 180 pounds; my mother was about 5'3". But I arrived one month prematurely and I weighed only 2½ pounds. I was born at our house, not in a hospital, and the doctor said that I wouldn't live through the night. He just left me on the bed and told my parents, "He's going to die before the night's over. We'll take care of the arrangements tomorrow." Then my grandmother got in the act. She picked me off the bed, put me in a shoe box, turned on the oven and put the shoe box in there with the door part open so the air could get in. And I didn't die.
There was nothing unusual about my early boyhood. My parents separated when I was 3 or 4 and for a while I lived with my grandfather, who managed a cattle and sheep ranch in the little town of Winters, near Abilene. I went quite a way to school by bus—like everyone else—and did my share of helping out with the chores around the ranch. By the time I was 7 my grandfather was letting me ride a couple of ranch ponies he had on the place. I never did graduate from high school. When I was about 10 I moved to California with my father and went to El Monte High School in a suburb of Los Angeles. Sports had always interested me in school more than studies and, although I wasn't big enough to compete in most games with the other guys, we did have boxing and wrestling teams on which even little guys like myself could participate. I really liked boxing. Before I quit school in the 11th grade I won a Los Angeles boxing championship. It was in the 95-to-105-pound division, and I weighed just 90 pounds. I still have the little pair of golden gloves they give you.
I never went on with boxing because about this time—I was about 13 or 14—I started becoming interested in horses. There was a girl named Joyce in my class at school and she first put the idea in my head about being a jockey. She was dating a jockey named Wallace Bailey, and she did a lot of talking to me about the races. I used to listen to sports on the radio every night, and suddenly I began to listen to the race results to hear which jockeys had won. The big rider at that time was Longden.
Joyce introduced me to Bailey and she insisted that he help me find a part-time job at the nearby Suzy Q. Ranch, which was owned by Thomas Simmons, then the president of Hollywood Park racetrack. I started at the Suzy Q. at the age of 14 in 1945. I used to go there every day, before and after school, and from the first day I loved it. I used to get up at 5. They had a little training track and we'd harrow and water it before we got the horses out. Later we cut and baled hay and fed the horses. Looking back on those days, I realize that I was learning the basic fundamentals of horsemanship. It was the greatest thing in the world for a young kid to start out that way. If you start in the middle—like hanging around a racetrack waiting for a shot at becoming an exercise boy—you miss most of the fundamentals.
I must have realized subconsciously that I was on my way to becoming a jockey because I found myself ducking away from school more and more. Without my father knowing it, I transferred from El Monte High School to La Puente High School. But I never went there. I would get up and go to the ranch, work all day and come back at night just as if I was coming home from school. My father didn't know about this until a year later when I told him I was moving to the ranch permanently. I stayed about two years and was making $75 a month and room and board. It doesn't sound like much money, but when you're 16 or 17 years old and you honestly want to do something, you can't worry about how much you're making.
I mean, that's the way I feel about it. I think, for example, that today a lot of American boys are too lazy. Many young kids don't want to do anything. Or they want to know how much money they're going to make before they decide what they're going to do. I don't think they really want to work seriously at anything. I've always believed that anybody with a little ability, a little guts and the desire to apply himself can make it, can make anything he wants to make of himself—and that includes race riding. They might not all be Eddie Arcaros, but they can become riders and darn good ones if they apply themselves. Look at all these riders from Latin America. They start out life as poor as anybody could be. But they have ambition. They begin as stableboys, and they work hard at it in order to become jockeys. They work even harder after that to become stars and earn the chance to come to ride in America. That's what I mean about ambition. Many American boys, at the same age, lack this attitude.
After two years of working at the Suzy Q. Ranch, and nearing my 17th birthday, I figured I had enough of a foundation, that I couldn't go any further at the ranch, and that I was almost ready-to ride. I decided on my own to go to the racetrack and see what I could do. Up to this time, despite being around horses for several years, I really knew nothing about racing. I'd broken yearlings and worked horses for fundamentals, which has nothing to do with speed. I'd never even worked a horse beyond half a mile. Anyway, a boy I had been working with named Bill Roland and I went up to San Francisco. Roland told me he would introduce me to a fellow he knew at the Bay Meadows track. So up we went. Roland said, "I know somebody with Trainer Hurst Philpot, and I'll take you out and see if I can get you a job." I didn't know anybody.
Maybe Hurst Philpot was short of help at the time because he gave me a job as exercise boy. He had the C.S. Howard horses at the time, and it was a pretty good stable. Johnny Adams, now a trainer, did most of the riding for Hurst, and it was John who taught me a great deal during my first days on the racetrack. For example, we worked something like 17 horses every morning, and often I used to work horses in the same set with Adams. Not only was it a big thrill for me, but I learned a lot about pace from John. Naturally you're going to watch a fellow like this because he was already an established rider and a good one. He had great hands on a horse. Today I have a reputation for having good hands with horses. Some of the credit should go to Adams. I watched what he did with his hands every morning and every afternoon at the races.
Philpot took me that year to Hollywood Park and it was there that I more or less decided that I was going to quit and catch on somewhere else. Hurst may have some other explanation for it now but the real reason I think I wanted out was because I didn't think he was going to give me a chance to ride. He had two other boys and he thought they were going to make riders sooner than I was. It was clear to me that both these boys were coming up in front of me, and that I wasn't going to get the chance I thought I deserved, so I quit. It was at Del Mar that I met Trainer George Reeves. He needed a boy at the time and we hooked up.
Reeves, who died eight years ago, was trainer at the time for Mr. and Mrs. Archie Sneed. He helped me more than anybody else in those days. He gave me the best shot and helped make a rider out of me. Once he started with me he rode me on everything he had in the barn. And I got beat many a time—a nose, a neck, you know—when I should never have gotten beat. He just said to me, "Don't worry about it. We got a race next week, same horse, and you'll win next out." George Reeves gave me solid teaching and encouragement. Many a jock's agent would come to him, knowing that he was going to ride me, and say to George, "Why don't you put my jock on this horse? The Shoemaker kid you're riding doesn't know how to ride yet. Maybe someday he will, but right now he's losing a lot of races for you." Reeves had a standard answer for all of them. "He's my jock," George would say, "and I'm going to stick with him." And he did, too.
I had about three years' experience working around horses before I rode my first race. It was March 19, 1949, at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco, and, naturally, it was for Reeves. The horse was called Waxahachie. Strangely, or maybe it isn't so strange at that, I wasn't overly tense or scared. I felt I'd had a good foundation up to that point, and I really believed I was ready for the next stage of my career. This was a 4-year-old filly I'd been out on practically every day, a good-natured mare that he really put in this race just for me. I'm not even sure where she finished. I know it was in the mud and slop and I think she was fifth. A lot of beginning jocks have difficulty at first with goggles, and I was no exception. I'll never forget this part of that first race: they told me to wear two pairs of goggles, and I didn't. I forgot, I guess, because I was a little excited. The mare didn't have much early speed, and even before we'd gone an eighth of a mile in the slop I couldn't see where the hell I was going. I pulled down the dirty goggles and, of course, having forgotten to put on a second pair, my eyes got full of mud. I don't think I saw any part of that race other than the first sixteenth of a mile. But the old mare had raced a lot and just kind of took me around the racetrack.
A few days later I rode for another trainer and did nothing, and then Reeves put me on a filly called Shafter V. who had won her previous race. It was the third race of my life and my first winner, April 20, 1949. It was a claiming race for around $3,000. When the stewards saw that George had named me on this filly, who had won her last start under another rider, they called him in and said, "You sure you want to put this boy on this filly? She should be the 4-to-5 favorite in this race and he hasn't had much experience. We don't want any trouble." Well, George, as usual, stood up for me, and he told the stewards that I was all right. The stewards hemmed and hawed around a while and finally they decided to let me go. Because I was an unknown apprentice boy, the filly went off at about 9 to 1, instead of 4 to 5. She lay second most of the way and then I got her up to win. Everyone was very happy, but for different reasons. All the fellows at the stable bet on her, you know, and the way they looked at it they all got 9 to 1 on a 4-to-5 shot. And I was happy, naturally. I'll never forget that when I jumped off the filly in the winner's circle my knees buckled. I could hardly walk back to the jocks' room.
During the next week I think I won about seven or eight more races, and I've kept right on rolling from there. I kept my apprentice allowance for a year, starting that April, and, riding all the time on the major circuit, I got off to a hell of a start by winning 219 races.
In my first year Reeves introduced me to a close friend, a jock's agent named Harry Silbert. Even before I had my first ride George had brought Silbert around. Silbert was no apprentice agent. He had once had the book for Cal Rainey, now a steward in New York, and also for Sammy Renick, now a New York television sportscaster. He has always had the reputation of being a hardworking guy. He doesn't worry about who he's going to bet on in the next race. He sticks to his business, which is getting his rider the best possible mounts. Well, George brought Silbert around and said to him. "Harry, when the kid starts riding I want you to have his book." Harry looked at me and at George and said, "O.K.," and he left. In all the years since that meeting, all that Harry Silbert and I have had, in place of any formal contract, is one original handshake. Sure, we discuss things all the time, but we've never had any serious arguments. Even now, although I have certain close associations with some owners and trainers, my riding commitments are usually up to Harry. He has complete charge of my mounts in the overnight races. As for the stake races, we usually sit down and talk about them. If we don't have time, and I think it's a good idea, I'll accept a certain mount, and he can do the same thing for me. One year I wanted to switch Derby mounts at the last minute and Harry told me I couldn't break his commitment. I had to go along with him—and won. My Kentucky Derby rides haven't always turned out that successfully!
During the early part of my riding career there was widespread comment that I was either too bashful to talk to anyone or that I simply didn't want to communicate with anyone. I was never very close to other riders, and when the reporters drew pretty much of a blank when they talked to me after a stakes race I got tagged with the name of "Silent Shoe." The truth of the matter is that I was very self-conscious about my teeth. I was born with a mouth that was almost deformed, and I had such terrible-looking teeth that I didn't want to open my mouth too much and get embarrassed by showing them off. Until I got my teeth fixed I was very shy. I had them done two or three times before I was satisfied with the results. Another reason I didn't want to talk much those days—not that I'm much of a chatterbox now—is that I didn't want to appear to be a wise guy. I really didn't know too much about racing yet.
Even when I was in the same jocks' room with my hero, Johnny Longden, I could never bring myself to go over and talk to him or ask him for advice. I think I never had a close friend among the riders until I met Eddie Arcaro, and he changed my life like nobody before him or since. Eddie was riding at Santa Anita in 1950. I used to go regularly to the film-patrol movies that were shown to the jocks by Alfred Shelhamer, a great student of the movies and a teacher to all of us. I remember watching Arcaro's every move. I marveled at the way he left the gate, how smooth he was with his hands, the faultless hand finish. When he was finishing with a horse he was always with the horse, always in perfect motion with his horse, and he could whip a horse either side as hard as anybody. He could rate a horse better than anyone and was at his very best when the competition was toughest and the stakes highest. He is the greatest rider I've ever seen.
Eddie took the time and trouble to help bring me out of my shell. When I first came to ride in New York he took me around to different places, introduced me to nice people and boosted me everywhere. I'll never forget it. I don't know if I would be as kind as he was. I like to think that under the same circumstances I would be. But the point is that Eddie Arcaro did it.
Arcaro, of course, is not the only jockey I admired. There were others, like Johnny Gilbert and Jackie Westrope. And, naturally, there has never ever been a better competitor than Johnny Longden. He simply never gave up. He made you fight like hell at all times to beat him. Of the top riders today, I think that Manuel Ycaza, despite some problems with his temperament, has excellent riding style. The standout, however, is Braulio Baeza. He has the perfect temperament.
People do a lot of comparing of styles these days, and I don't think it's all that important. Most good riders, because of the differences in their physical makeup, have styles of their own. Arcaro had great influence on the style of riding in this country for 25 years. Now that he isn't riding anymore you can see the change from his smoothness, blended with perfect timing, to the so-called Panamanian style. These boys sit and ride differently. But this isn't a criticism, for their styles have proved successful. It's like golfers, you know. Take Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. They don't swing the same, because they've had to adjust their swings to their individual physiques. But they get the same results.
That's how it is with jockeys. Take Baeza and myself. He is a tall, thin fellow and he doesn't ride as "short" as most jocks. He bends way over, takes a very short hold of his horse, maybe a foot or so from the ears. He's very successful at it and makes it work. I'm short and stocky. I ride shorter than he does and I'm sitting back farther on the horse than he is. I ride with a long hold on the reins, and I've been very successful with that style. Baeza and the other Latin Americans sit up on a horse's neck, closer to the horse's head than most of us do. They don't use too much whip, either. You'll notice that a lot of them do it with their whips down, just kind of brush at their horses. Furthermore, they have started a trend in that, unlike our boys, their knees are out from the horse instead of gripping the withers. Their feet are in the stirrups all right, but they hold their legs open, not touching the straps. I don't know why they do this, but if it works, why not?
As for myself, it has been said that I sit a horse extremely still compared with most jocks, that I don't continually act "busy" on a horse the way a rider like Bill Hartack and some others do. The point is that even if I don't look like I'm doing much, in my own way I really am. I mean, I'm asking the horse to run—maybe in a different way, through use of my hands—and getting results. A lot of trainers have said that I am so relaxed that I transmit this easiness to the horse, and that it's the relaxed horse who will show his true form and put out his best effort.
All this is to say that there can be no such thing as a "correct" or "best" race-riding style. Most of the leading French jockeys I saw on my only trip to Paris a few years ago ride their horses beautifully, but you couldn't possibly say that they look like we do on their mounts. Just the same, their time is good when they make their moves, and the only area in which I think we may be ahead of them is with our strong finishes. Without intending to hurt any feelings, I don't believe that the English are as good riders as the French. What it boils down to is that successful race riding is the result of the right combination of natural ability, a sense of horsemanship and the determination to develop these assets over a period of years. I firmly believe it takes about 10 years of riding to learn your profession well.
It goes without saying that trainers can help any jockey tremendously. You can learn a lot, obviously, about any horse and his peculiarities by warming him up before a race, but a good trainer is the man who can tell you the right dope about his horses and how they like to run. Bad trainers, or those who often don't seem to know which end eats, will tell you one thing, and the horse is completely the opposite once you get going. Sometimes this isn't as much the trainer's fault as it is the fault of a jock who refuses to come back from a race and tell his trainer the truth about the horse in question. I've heard jocks tell trainers stories about their horses that are completely untrue, and a lot of trainers will swallow it. The best thing you can do is tell the truth, no matter what it is. It may hurt a bit sometimes, but I think in the long run the guy is going to be better off if he knows the truth. Like, for example, once I was on a horse that choked up during the race and made all sorts of gargly sounds. I thought he had swallowed his tongue, so I suggested to the man that he use a tongue strap the next time out. He did, and the horse came back and won three races in a row. Or I might tell a man that his horse should improve with blinkers if it would keep his mind on running. Little things like that have helped trainers who wouldn't know about them unless you came forward and told them.
I have a great deal of respect for many trainers in this sport, but the one at the top of my list is Frank Whiteley, who used to train Tom Rolfe for Ambassador Raymond Guest and who trained Damascus for Mrs. Thomas Bancroft. Frank knows his horses as well or better than any trainer I've ever been around. As everyone knows, I've been closely associated for many years with the team of Rex Ellsworth and Mesh Tenney. We were very close at one point, and still are, as far as that goes. Rex has his own ideas about breaking horses and training them, and he doesn't particularly care if anybody else agrees with him or not. I think that Rex and Mesh are good horsemen. After all, they have gotten results over the years with their methods. They are Rex's horses. He raises them and pays for them, so he can do whatever he wants with them. And yet I don't completely agree with some of his ideas. For instance, I think Rex overdoes it by being too rough on his young horses. The result, from my own experience, is that they often tend to get rank and skittish when they shouldn't and that it becomes more difficult later on to teach them how to run a smooth race.
There are a lot of trainers along the way, long after Hurst Philpot and George Reeves, who have helped and influenced me, and I couldn't begin to name them all. But a few have left lasting impressions on me, and one of the earliest, when I first went to New York in 1951, was Preston Burch, then the trainer for Brookmeade Stable and the father of Elliott Burch. Mr. Burch was a superior horseman and one of the finest men I've ever worked for. I was really kind of like a little country boy when I went to New York to ride for the first time. Mr. Burch helped me when I'd make a mistake and he'd be very kind about what he said. Once, I remember, I was on a little black colt of his and he said, "Try to lay up second or third if you can. He hasn't had a race in quite a while and he may not be quite as fit as he should be, so save him as much as you can." Well, in the race I moved to the lead just before I got to the quarterpole. The colt hung a little bit right near the finish and just got beat. The next morning Mr. Burch said, "I think you rode a magnificent race. But one little thing that you did might have made the difference and that was that you moved on this horse maybe a sixteenth of a mile sooner than you should have. Outside of that you rode a beautiful race." In other words, he gave it to me, but put it to me in such a way that he made me feel good. It gave me confidence, and I really tried harder and worked as hard as I could for him.
Good trainers like this are a pleasure to be with and to work for. Johnny Nerud is that type of fellow, easy to ride for. In California, Charlie Whittingham is beautiful to ride for because he understands racing, he knows horses, and when you come back and say something to him and explain it to him he knows what you're talking about. One of Charlie's owners, Liz Whitney Tippett, is good, too, that is until she tries training her own horses. As great a gal as she is, I don't think she knows a lot about riding races or training horses. She should leave it all up to Charlie. Unfortunately, she would never agree with me!
Nowadays a lot of the modern breed of trainers don't appear to be either as educated or dedicated horsemen as some of the older group I've just mentioned. It's probably because times and circumstances have changed. Some of these guys, despite their inexperience, may make it. That is, they may become successful at winning races but not by becoming horsemen. They can learn to read a condition book, learn the ins and outs of the claiming business, and some of them make a pretty good living by running their horses as often as they can and by knowing when to get rid of them or when to claim another one. This isn't developing the thoroughbred in a serious way; it's running a business in hopes of making money. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that, but it ties in with a trend in American racing that I don't particularly admire—the trend that sees us going more commercial and less sporting year after year.
One aspect of this exploitation is that because of the emphasis put on making money in the fastest possible way, we are overracing and breaking down more of our good horses before they have any chance to achieve any real distinction. You run a 2-year-old 15 times and unless he is an exceptionally strong and durable horse, he has no shot at all. It's silly. In connection with this, let me go back for a moment to Rex Ellsworth and his trainer, Mesh Tenney. Some time ago, when they were asked to discuss some of my riding skills, they were most complimentary in mentioning such assets as my sense of pace and my hands. However, when asked if he could detect any weakness in my makeup, Tenney replied, "If Shoemaker has a weakness it's at short distances, the violent distances. It's not in his nature to fight and scrap and struggle. Bill bothers a horse less than any other jockey. He does it with smooth, effortless grace, not a desperate, staggering shift or a lunge that totally destroys the coordination and rhythm of the animal." Well, I can tell you that Mesh's appraisal of my short-distance rides is absolutely correct, and that the reason is that I don't believe in the real short races anyway. Racing experience for a young horse is one thing, but those three-eighths of a mile "baby races" are mostly useless. I'm against those races. Five-eighths of a mile for a 2-year-old is the proper distance for acquiring experience. Anything less than that is of little benefit to the horse. I don't like to ride those races and therefore, as Mesh points out, I probably don't perform in them as well as I should—or as well as some people expect me to.
Trouble is, when you get to the position I am fortunately in, some people always expect you to be the best, which isn't quite the same thing as doing your best. Nobody, and I don't give a damn who he is or what sport we're talking about, can be at his peak all the time. When you ride six, seven or eight races a day for five or six days a week, it isn't that you're disinterested, but it's a plain fact that you haven't the interest that you obviously have in the big, important races. An athlete's makeup is such that it is physically and emotionally impossible to perform in every race as you are capable of performing in certain races. For example, particularly in California, I'm on a lot of false favorites, horses who go off odds-on choices when on form they probably shouldn't be any better than 4 or 5 to 1. You get beat and you get booed. But after a while it goes in one ear and out the other. The fans have their rights, and it's a natural reaction to let off steam. I'm pretty accustomed to the booing, for to me the important thing is that I know I do the best I can.
WITH HIS FIRST AND CLOSEST FRIEND AMONG RIDERS, EDDIE ARCARO, SHOEMAKER RELAXES BETWEEN MOUNTS IN 1954
Shoe reveals the surprising background to his famous Derby ride on Gallant Man and his one unfulfilled ambition.