Bill Shoemaker

On this Day:

On April 20, 1949 Jockey Bill Shoemaker won his 1st race, in Albany, California. For 29 years he held the world record for total professional jockey victories. As a Hall of Fame professional jockey Bill Shoemaker, known as “The Shoe,” rode 8,833 winning horses and won the Kentucky Derby four times. He also won two Preakness Stakes, five Belmont Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Shoemaker was noted for his grace, his rapport with horses, and his seemingly effortless riding style.

Early Life

William Lee Shoemaker was born on August 19, 1931 in Fabens, Texas.

Born in an adobe shack in Fabens, Texas, in 1931, Shoemaker weighed one pound, 13 ounces at birth; the doctor who attended his birth said he would not survive. His grandmother, in defiance of the doctor’s decree, created a makeshift incubator for him when she wrapped him in a blanket and placed him on a pillow near the lid of a warm oven.

Shoemaker lived with various relatives while his father looked for work during the Depression. He learned to ride at his grandfather’s ranch, where he was sent out on a horse to pick up the mail. After his parents divorced, he lived with his father in El Monte, California. Although he remained small throughout his life—topping out at 4’11” and wearing a size 2 1/2 shoe—he was strong, and became a member of his high school boxing and wrestling teams, never losing a match. When he was 14, a classmate suggested that he had the perfect build to be a jockey, and Shoemaker began working at the Suzy Q Ranch in La Puente, California. He found that he loved the thoroughbred horses there, and without telling his father, quit school for a job at the ranch that paid $75 a month.

Career as a Jockey

Two years later, he got a job as an exercise rider at the Bay Meadows track in San Mateo, California, working with trainer Hurst Philpot and future Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Adams. He loved the job, and knew he wanted to ride for the rest of his life. He began riding at Golden Gate Fields, where he won his first race. His first win only netted him $120, but by the end of his career, he had made more than $123 million. One secret of his success was that he continued to learn and improve with every season. He also possessed a notably even temper and calm disposition, an asset during stressful races.

Another asset was his understanding of horses. According to Bill Christine in the Los Angeles Times, horse breeder Rex Ellsworth said that Shoemaker “knew when a horse was doing his best or loafing. When a horse was doing his best, Shoe left him alone. When a horse loafed, Shoe would get after him. I never worried when Shoe rode one of my horses, because I knew he’d do a perfect job.” Adam Bernstein, writing in the Washington Post, quoted sportswriter Jim Murray, who said, “No one ever rode a running horse the way Willie Lee Shoemaker does.

Shoemaker’s stellar career was interrupted several times by injuries. In 1968, he broke a thigh bone when his mount fell on him. His doctor used a small metal pin to repair the injury, and Shoemaker went through physical rehabilitation for the next 13 months. He returned to racing and won his first two races, but in April of 1969 he was thrown from his horse and suffered a broken pelvis, a ruptured bladder, and temporary paralysis in his left leg. After this injury, he came back to racing and rode winning races for the next 20 years.

In 1986, when many thought the 54–year–old Shoemaker’s career was on the decline, he rode a horse named Ferdinand in the Kentucky Derby. Ferdinand was a long shot, with a 17–to–1 chance of winning. Shoemaker rode him so effectively that Ferdinand won by more than two lengths. Shoemaker thus became the oldest jockey ever to win the Derby. Because of the length of his career, he was also one of the youngest jockeys to win the Derby.

In 1981 he rode John Henry, winner of the Arlington Million, the first million-dollar stake race for Thoroughbreds. Other notable horses he rode included Gallant Man, Damascus, Spectacular Bid, and Swaps.


In 1990, Shoemaker considered retiring from riding and becoming a trainer. He made a farewell tour of racetracks all over the United States, ending with a final race at his home track in Santa Anita, California, where he finished fourth; it was the last of a record–setting 40,350 races. After his last ride, he began training horses, and had his first winner in June of 1990 at Hollywood Park. However, in April of 1991, after a round of golf, he left the course to meet friends for dinner, and while driving, crashed and rolled his Ford Bronco. At the time, his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. He suffered multiple injuries, including a broken neck, and was paralyzed from the neck down.

Later that year, seated in a wheelchair, which he operated by turning his head and breathing into a tube, Shoemaker resumed training, but was limited by the fact that he couldn’t ride the horses himself in order to assess their ability. In 1997, realizing that the physical rigours of training were too much for him, he retired.

Shoemaker authored three murder mysteries. They were often compared to the large stable of best-selling horse mysteries by fellow jockey/author Dick Francis. Shoemaker’s Stalking Horse (1994), Fire Horse (1995), and Dark Horse (1996) all featured jockey-turned-sleuth, Coley Killebrew, using his racetrack experience in and about his restaurant and the horse world.

He also co-authored,  Shoemaker: America’s Greatest Jockey, with Barney Nagler. He wrote, The Shoe: Willie Shoemaker’s Illustrated Book of Racing, and Jazz in the 1970s: Diverging Streams, where Shoemaker immersed readers in the cultural transformation of jazz.

On October 12, 2003, at age 72, Shoemaker died in his sleep at his home in San Marino, California, near the Santa Anita racetrack. Shoemaker was married and divorced three times. He adopted two children during his first marriage and had his own daughter in his third marriage.                                            

First, a Joke:

Did you hear about the Jockey that got fired for not paying attention to his job?
Everyone got tired of his horsing around!

Second, a Song:

Hall of Fame Jockey Bill Shoemaker closes out his career… We hope you enjoy!


If you would like to watch a documentary of Bill Shoemaker’s life, this video is excellent (48 minutes):

“Nice Guys Finish First” — Produced in 1990.. Narrated by Eclipse Award winner and famed Actor, John Forsythe,

He is one of the most remarkable athletes of all time, the legendary jockey, Bill Shoemaker. This documentary takes you from “Shoe’s” birthplace in Fabens, Texas, through his early success, life-threatening injuries, his incredible comeback to the top of his profession and final retirement from the saddle.


Thought for the Day:

“Desire is the most important factor in the success of any athlete.” – Bill Shoemaker

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Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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