This Week in Texas History: Jockey suffers career-threatening spill

By Bartee Haile

No one who saw Willie Shoemaker take that terrible tumble at Santa Anita Park on Jan. 23, 1968 would have believed the tough little Texan would ever ride in another horse race.

Life had always been a struggle for Billie Lee Shoemaker since the day he was born at Fabens, Texas downriver from El Paso. The doctor who delivered the three-pound baby in August 1931 predicted he would be dead by morning. 

According to family folklore, Bill’s grandmother wrapped him in blankets and for extra warmth placed the fragile bundle on the oven door. A relative who saw the infant two months later exclaimed, “You mean that’s a baby? Oh, my God! He looks like a little rat!

In truth Bill was unusually small. Although his father and mother were normal height, 5-foot-11 and 5-4 respectively, their grown son stood an inch shy of five feet and weighed less than 100 pounds.

After his parents divorced in 1934, Bill stayed for awhile with an uncle on a ranch near Abilene. Then at age 10 he moved to El Monte, California outside Los Angeles to live with his father and his new wife.

In high school Bill did not let his size stop him from trying out for every sport, even football and basketball. The fierce competitor finally made the boxing and wrestling teams and won a Golden Gloves title.

Bill “Willie” Shoemaker guides his mount War Allied to the victory circle after winning the first race at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, California, on May 27, 1981. Shoemaker, who had the second-highest number of victories in thoroughbred racing history, died Sunday, Oct. 12, 2003. He was 72. Shoemaker died in his sleep at his suburban home near Santa Anita racetrack in California, according to longtime friend and trainer Paddy Gallagher. (AP Photo/Rasmussen)

A classmate, who dated a jockey at nearby Santa Anita, casually suggested Bill ought to try horse racing. Halfway through a guided tour of the track, the wide-eyed 14-year-old was hooked and dropped out of school to devote every waking hour to his chosen profession.

Bill’s apprentice debut on Mar. 19, 1949 was marred by the hardball tactics of a famous jockey who cut him off coming out of the gate. Buried in the back of the pack, the nervous novice watched helplessly as Johnny Longden chalked up another victory.

A month and a day later, Bill broke the ice with his first winner. Friends and admirers cleaned up on the 9-1 long shot but not the ecstatic Texan. He did not know how to place a bet.

The teenager ended a sensational rookie season with 219 wins, good enough for second place in the national rankings. Off to a strong start in 1951, Bill challenged veteran rider Joe Culmone for the top spot. Their thrilling duel ended in a dead heat as each posted 388 first-place finishes, the most by an American jockey in 44 years.

By 1953 The Shoe was already in a class by himself winning a record 485 races, 135 more than runner-up Bill Hartack. He duplicated the feat in 1954 with 380 victories, far short of the incredible mark of the previous year but again well ahead of perennial rival Hartack.

During a get-acquainted blitz of the eastern tracks in 1951, Bill met the aging legend Eddie Arcaro. Four years later, the genial and generous Arcaro, who gladly acknowledged the youngster as “the new champ,” recommended the dazzling newcomer to Rex Ellsworth, who promptly signed Bill to ride his entry in the 1955 Kentucky Derby.

With Shoe at the controls, Swaps captured the Churchill Downs classic beating the favorite Nashua – and Eddie Arcaro – by a length and a half. In a nationally televised match race that summer, Arcaro turned the tables in what Shoemaker humbly described as “a lesson from the master.”

Bill should have added a second Derby to his list of accomplishments in 1957, but the most embarrassing mistake of his career cost him the race. Misjudging the finish line, he pulled up too early on Gallant Man allowing Hartack and Iron Liege to win by a nose.

Prior to the fateful fall at Santa Anita in January 1968, Shoemaker had survived his share of racetrack mishaps without serious injury. But his usual luck deserted him on this frightening occasion.

A reckless apprentice, who ironically died in a similar spill seven years later, caused a multi-horse pileup. As Bill’s mount struggled to his feet, the animal stepped on his right thigh shattering the bone. At 37 his racing days appeared to be over.

But guts and determination made the critical difference. Thirteen months later, Shoemaker returned to Santa Anita for a dramatic comeback, winning three out of three contests. After that unforgettable performance, no one could doubt that he was better than ever.

Bill Shoemaker stayed in the saddle another 21 years and set horse racing records once thought impossible. His 8,824 wins were a record at the time and the same for his amazing 263 victories in events with purses of $100,000 or more. And how can anyone hope to top his 1986 Kentucky Derby triumph at the ripe old age of 54, which he called his single most satisfying moment?

Jockeys may come and go, but no one will ever fill The Shoe’s shoes.

“Unforgettable Texans” brings to life the once famous people no one remembers today. Order your copy for $24.00 (tax and shipping included) by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

Comment on this Article

About Author


Comments are closed.