Bill Shoemaker, also known as “Willie,” was a legendary jockey and winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes multiple times over a forty-year riding career. Shoemaker was born on August 19, 1931, in Fabens, El Paso County, Texas, to B.B. and Ruby (Harris) Shoemaker in their home. When Shoemaker was born prematurely, he was not expected to live through the night; he weighed only 2.5 pounds. He later credited his grandmother for saving him; she put the tiny infant in a shoebox and next to the warmth of the oven. When he was about four years old his parents separated, and he went to live on his grandfather’s ranch in Winters, Texas. On the ranch, Shoemaker took an interest in horses. When he was ten years old, he went to live with his father in El Monte, California. At El Monte High School, he was a standout athlete in wrestling and boxing, in the latter of which he went undefeated and won a Los Angeles boxing championship.
While Shoemaker was in high school in 1945, he found work and earned $75 a month at a thoroughbred ranch named the Suzy Q Ranch owned by Thomas Simmons. At the Suzy Q, Shoemaker cleaned stables, fed the horses, and learned the fundamentals of horsemanship. As a boy he had developed a growing interest in thoroughbred racing—he listened to the horse races on the radio at night and admired the big names such as Johnny Longden and Eddie Arcaro who were both doing well at that time. At some point he transferred from El Monte High School to La Puente High School, but he did not attend classes and dropped out in the eleventh grade. After two years at the Suzy Q Ranch, Shoemaker went to San Francisco, where a friend he had worked with at the stables introduced him to Hurst Philpot, a horse trainer who eventually gave Shoemaker a job as an exercise boy. While Shoemaker was working for Philpot, he met a rider named Johnny Adams who taught him how to be a good jockey. Shoemaker then went to work for George Reeves, a racehorse trainer in Del Mar, California. On March 19, 1949, Reeves let Shoemaker, who stood four feet and eleven inches tall and weighed less than 100 pounds, get on a horse and race at Golden Gate Fields, a track near San Francisco. A month later on April 20, 1949, Shoemaker won his first race on a young filly named Shafter V.
Bill Shoemaker’s career lasted about forty-one years, from 1949 until 1990. During his career he accomplished many milestones, earned many awards and honors, and set records that as of 2017 had not been broken. His career total of 8,833 wins was a record that went unbroken until 1999. He earned a record-breaking 485 wins in 1953 alone. Over the course of his career, he won more than 20 percent of the 40,000-plus races in which he rode. Shoemaker’s claim to fame rests in the American Classics, which included the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. Shoemaker won four Kentucky Derby races, one shy of tying with Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack. His two more memorable rides were both Kentucky Derbies. One was in 1957, when Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and stood up and caused the horse, Gallant Man, to slow down, thereby causing him to lose the race. Shoemaker’s favorite race occurred when he became the oldest jockey, at age fifty-four, to win a Kentucky Derby in 1986 on Ferdinand. He later referred to the feat as the “highlight of my career.”
Shoemaker had a legendary career and earned many single-season records, many ‘rider of the year’ awards, and eventual induction into the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in 1958. Like all great jockeys, his career included a few injuries. In 1968 when he went down with his horse during a race, Shoemaker fractured his femur; he did not know if he would be able to continue riding. After months of therapy, Shoemaker was back on a horse. Again, he was injured several months later when a horse flipped backwards in the paddock and crushed his pelvis.
Shoemaker’s life centered on racing horses, and, unfortunately, his home life suffered. Shoemaker was married three times: first to Virginia MacLachlan (1950–60); second, to Bessie Babbs Bayer (1961–77); and, lastly, to Cynthia Barnes (1978–94). Shoemaker’s two daughters and two sons are Amanda, Sheryl, John, and Mitchell. In 1990 Bill Shoemaker retired from horse racing and became a trainer based out of Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles. In 1991 he was in an automobile accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, although he continued horse training as a supervisor until he retired in 1997. He was an inaugural inductee into the Texas Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1999. On October 12, 2003, Shoemaker died of natural causes in his California home in San Marino.