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Willie Shoemaker

Exceptional Talents

Shoemaker had his first win on April 20, 1949 riding Shafter V at Golden Gate Fields. In his first full year, he had an impressive 219 winners. And before long, he was predicted to be a perennial winner. In a 1953 Newsweek article jockey Ted Atkinson remarked, "This is a real race rider.… He will go on and on." What observers like Atkinson saw was a quiet rider with gentle hands, someone who used smarts to win his races. A Newsweek writer explained, "They attribute to him an excellent sense of pace, an eye for a developing pattern of danger that can be avoided up ahead, and a way of first hustling his horse out of the gate and then letting the animal settle into his stride pretty much on his own until the rider feels the mechanism under him to be functioning smoothly." Nearly a decade later, the accomplished jockey Eddie Arcaro complimented him in Time, saying, "Willie takes such light hold of a horse … that he could probably ride with silk threads for reins."

Quiet in the saddle, Shoemaker was also quiet when interviewed, although after decades in the media spotlight, he learned to be more communicative. In 1950 a Newsweek writer described him as someone who "can make a whole conversation out of a nod." At the time he was battling Italian rider Joe Culmone for the year's most wins, but when asked to identify the best jockey, he said "Eddie Arcaro." The jockey was never one to boast about his accomplishments. Shoemaker and Arcaro would in fact become good friends and Shoemaker would credit the other jockey with teaching him to relax and work with the horse rather than resort to the whip. In 1999, Shoemaker was eloquent in his appreciation of another jockey, when Laffit Pincay passed his record 8,833 career wins. He said in an interview for cbs.sportsline.com, "There has never been anyone more dedicated to their profession or sport like Pincay. To have my record broken by him is a very big honor."


1931 Born August 19 in Fabens, Texas to parents Bebe and Ruby Shoemaker
1949 Makes first professional ride on March 19
1950 Marries Virginia McLaughlin
1955 Has first Kentucky Derby victory
1957 Loses Kentucky Derby after misjudging finish line
1960 Divorced from first wife
1961 Marries Babs Bayer on November 29
1968 Breaks femur in riding accident
1969 Breaks pelvis, ruptures bladder, and damages nerves in paddock accident
1978 Divorced by second wife effective March 6
1978 Marries Cindy Barnes on March 7
1979 Wins Marlboro Cup on Spectacular Bid
1986 Wins Kentucky Derby at age fifty-four
1990 Retires from race riding
1991 Paralyzed in automobile accident

Related Biography: Jockey Eddie Arcaro

As the only jockey to win two Triple Crowns, Eddie Arcaro is one of the finest riders in racing history. He began riding thoroughbreds at age fourteen and entered his first race in 1931. Arcaro's career took off after his contract was sold to Calumet Farms, which provided his first Derby winner, Larwin, in 1938. He would become known as a strong, instinctual rider who credited his horses in his wins and earned himself the nickname "The Master."

Arcaro had seventeen wins in the legs of the Triple Crown—the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preakness—including a tie with Bill Hartack for a record five Derby victories. He captured all three in one year for the first time in 1941 with Whirlaway, and then again in 1948 on Citation. When Arcaro rode Nashua in the Derby in 1955, the now senior rider placed second behind Shoemaker on Swaps. A rivalry was made despite the fact that Swaps would not appear in the subsequent Belmont or Preakness, both of which Arcaro would win on Nashua, so a special $100,000 match race was held. In this competition, Arcaro won easily.

The horse that Arcaro admired most was Kelso, with whom he paired to win twelve out of fourteen races at the end of his career. He retired at age forty-five in 1961. His record 554 stakes wins would stand until Shoemaker passed this mark in 1972. After he retired from racing, Arcaro worked as a sportscaster on radio and television. He died at age eighty-one in 1997.

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