Only 2 pounds at birth, Willies Shoemaker grew into a 95-pound horse racing giant.
Shoemaker who was born in Fabens, Texas, on August 19, 1931. He was so small he wasn't expected to live through the night, so he was kept in a shoe box in the oven.
He boxed and wrestled in high school but decided to become a jockey because of his size. He dropped out of school to ride for $75 a month plus room and board at a La Puente horse ranch.
Willie Shoemaker won his first race April 20, 1949, at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco aboard Shafter V. His final victory came January 20, 1990, at Gulfstream Park aboard Beau Genius.
Known as "The Shoe" throughout his Hall of Fame career, the 4-foot-11 jockey was the perfect fit for great horses. His fame reached every corner of the racing world and beyond, making him one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.
Shoemaker died in his sleep Sunday at his suburban home near Santa Anita racetrack, according to longtime friend and trainer Paddy Gallagher. He was 72. Gallagher, an assistant during Shoemaker's training career that ended in 1997, said doctors told him Shoemaker died of natural causes.
"He was one of the greatest human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing in my life," said retired jockey Chris McCarron, now general manager of Santa Anita. "Forget about his ability to communicate with horses, his compassion for people was second to none."
Willie Shoemaker overtook Johnny Longden's record of 6,032 career victories in 1970 and held it until Laffit Pincay Jr. broke Shoemaker's mark in 1999. Shoemaker finished with 8,833 wins. "For a man his size, wearing a size 2½ shoe, he was a giant," retired Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye said.
Willie Shoemaker, a superb athlete rode for 41 years, most of them in Southern California, considered to be the most competitive circuit in America.
Shoemaker's riding style of sitting almost still on a horse was emulated by generations of jockeys. His former wife, Cindy, said watching him ride was "like listening to a pretty song or reading poetry."
"He was at the right place at the right time all the time," retired jockey Angel Cordero Jr. said. "(Eddie) Arcaro and Shoemaker rode a long time ago when nobody knew how to ride. They developed their own style and we learned from them."
In 1986, at 54, Shoemaker became the oldest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby when he guided Ferdinand along a small opening on the rail in a ride considered one of the greatest ever. That win came 21 years after his previous Derby win, aboard Lucky Debonair in 1965. He also won America's most famous race in 1959 with Tomy Lee and 1955 with Swaps.
Perhaps his most famous Derby ride was one he lost, in 1957. Dueling toward the finish at Churchill Downs were Gallant Man, ridden by Shoemaker, and Iron Liege, ridden by Bill Hartack. At the 16th pole, Shoemaker stood up, mistaking it for the finish line. He sat down immediately but Gallant Man lost by a nose. Shoemaker received a 15-day suspension from the stewards for the rules violation.
The night before, Gallant Man's owner, Ralph Lowe, told Shoemaker he had a dream about a jockey on one of his horses misjudging the finish line. Shoemaker insisted it wouldn't happen to him. Afterward, Lowe found no fault and gave Shoemaker $5,000 and a new car.
"I didn't make any excuses," Shoemaker said in his 1987 book "Shoemaker: America's Greatest Jockey."
Five weeks later, Shoemaker rode Gallant Man to an eight-length victory in the Belmont Stakes.
Besides four Derby victories, Shoemaker won 2 Preakness Stakes, 5 Belmont Stakes and rode Ferdinand to a victory over Alysheba in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic to capture Horse of the Year honors.
Among the other great horses Shoemaker rode were Sword Dancer, Damascus, Ack Ack, Forego, Spectacular Bid and John Henry.
Willie Shoemaker's last race was February 3, 1990, after a yearlong tour of racetracks in North America to exhibit his skill to fans who had never seen him. A crowd of 64,573 showed up at Santa Anita to see him and his mount, Patchy Groundfrog, finish fourth in a nationally televised race. He had rode in a record 40,350 races, and his mounts finished in the money about half the time. He was elected to racing's Hall of Fame in 1958.
After racing Willie Shoemaker's life would take a tragic turn when he broke his neck, and became a quadriplegic in 1991, when the Ford Bronco he was driving veered off a freeway in suburban Los Angeles, tumbled down an embankment and rolled. He had been drinking after playing golf and police said his blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit. He sued Ford Motor Co. and won a multimillion-dollar settlement.
He continued training horses for another six years after the accident despite being in a wheelchair. He operated the chair by turning his head and breathing into a tube. "I knew the last couple of years he was having problems," said Delahoussaye, who last spoke with Shoemaker four days ago. "Shoe never let on. He was a quiet guy, he kept a lot of things to himself. He never complained."
Pincay, who was forced to retire after breaking his neck in March, called Shoemaker last week and told him about a trip Pincay had taken to New York to help find a cure for paralysis. "I told him how close they were to finding a cure and he was very excited and sounded happy about it," Pincay said Sunday. "I know he wasn't happy in that wheelchair, but he never complained."
Shoemaker was a sporadic visitor to Southern California racetracks in recent years. He was present at Hollywood Park on Dember 10, 1999, when Pincay broke Shoemaker's record for victories with No. 8,834.
Willie Shoemaker is survived by his former wife and his only child, 23-year-old Amanda.
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