Ageless Sultan of the Saddle
Born 1931 in Fabens, Texas, Willie Shoemaker is he most successful jockey in history. He won his first race at 18. By the time he retired in 1990 he had won 8,833 races, including four Kentucky Derbies, five Belmont Stakes, and three Preakness Stakes. He was the first jockey to win over $100 million.
Fifty four years after the 2 1/2-pound pre-maturely born Shoemaker was placed in a shoebox and shoved into an oven to keep him alive, Willie Shoemaker nursed a 171 shot, a colt named Ferdinand, to victory in the 1986 Kentucky Derby.
It was one of sport's most memorable achievements. It would have been a historic feat, no matter who was in the saddle, but, coming as it did from the gifted hands of the world's greatest jockey at such an advanced athletic age, the feat took on miracle proportions. The sports world was awed and delighted.
The victory put a crown of gold on a 41year career that saw the pintsized Texan ride more horses, win more races, capture more stake purses and earn more prize money than any jockey who ever lived. Before retiring in 1990, Shoemaker rode 8,833 winners, 1,009 of them in stakes races and 250 with purses of $100,000 or more. He also won 10 national money titles and over $123 million in purses.
Shoemaker considered Eddie Arcaro his toughest rival and envied his two sweeps of horse racing's Triple Crown events the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes with Whirlaway and Citation, the only prize to escape him. "He was terrific," Shoemaker said of Arcaro. "I think he beat me more than I beat him." They had some great duels.
Shoemaker needed no excuses for his own record in Triple Crown events. He won the Kentucky Derby four times, with Swaps, Tomy Lee, Lucky Debonair and Ferdinand; two Preakness Stakes, with Candy Spots and Damascus; and five Belmont Stakes, with Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Jaipur, Damascus and Avatar.
Then there was his notorious blunder in the 1957 Derby when, seemingly cruising to victory aboard Gallant Man, he mistook the sixteenth pole for the finish line, stood up in the stirrups and allowed Iron Liege to win by a nose.
"An error like that would have destroyed most men," Arcaro said. "Only a guy like Willie could have survived it. He's a tough sonofagun."
That toughness was tested from the day of his birth and throughout a career that saw him labeled at first "too small to be a jockey," suffer two life threatening accidents during the late 1960s, undergo marital problems, and temporarily lose some of his competitive drive after being lured into the fast lane of California celebrity life.
Then, on April 8, 1991, a little more than a year after retiring to become a trainer, Shoemaker was involved in a one-car accident that left him paralyzed frm the neck down.
Shoemaker retired as a trainer in 1997 following Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet. He now works with the Paralysis Project, where he serves as honorary chairman.
Sports Publishing Inc.: The Sports 100: Willie Shoemaker
MSNBC Health: "Mind over Body: The Willie Shoemaker Story with Willie Shoemaker"