In the Pantheon of racing, the late Bill Shoemaker is mounted on a special pedestal. His career spanned 41 years and from 1970 until 1991, when Laffit Pincay surpassed his 8,833-win milestone, Shoemaker held the all-time record for most wins. He was also the first jockey to win over $100 million and the first to win a million-dollar race – the Arlington Million on John Henry.
Although the Triple Crown eluded him, he won the Kentucky Derby four times and remains the oldest rider to ever win the race – he was 54 when he claimed the 1986 Derby on Ferdinand, the horse who also made him the oldest rider, at 56 in 1987, to win the Breeders Cup Classic, in a dramatic photo finish with Alysheba.
Shoemaker rode two horses to victory in the Preakness Stakes and he holds the record for the best winning percentage in the Belmont Stakes with five winners from 11 starters.
In 1999, I was privileged to interview Shoemaker, who was being honored at the NTRA All-Star Jockey Championship. During the interview, among other things, we talked about his Belmont Stakes winners. (Click the links to view the race replays).
“Gallant Man was the best one and a-half-mile horse I ever rode,” Shoemaker said of his first Belmont winner. “He could beat anybody going one and a-half.”
Shoemaker rode into a storm of controversy with Gallant Man in the 1957 Kentucky Derby, when he mistook the 1/16the †pole as the finish, allowing Iron Liege to catch him by a nose at the actual finish line.
“I misjudged the finish line,” said Shoemaker.” I was up and down (in the stirrups) real quick, but he relaxed just a jump or two and that made the difference between winning and losing.
“They suspended me for 15 days. But Mr. Lowe was such a great owner, †he wouldn’t run Gallant Man in the Preakness. He said, ‘I’ll wait until the Belmont when Shoe can ride him.”
Gallant Man set a new track record with 2:26 3/5 in the Belmont, a mark that stood until 1973, when Secretariat broke it with 2:24-flat, a world mark that still stands for 1 1/2 miles on the dirt.
“Gallant Man was kind of a laid back horse and easy to ride,” said Shoemaker. “You could get speed if you wanted it, but if you wanted to take him back, you could just relax and he’d relax right with you. You could do anything with him that you wanted.”
Shoemaker had accepted the mount for trainer Elliott Burch on Sword Dancer in the 1959 Kentucky Derby, without realizing that his manager had committed him to Tomy Lee. Although he believed Sword Dancer to be the better horse, Shoemaker rode Tomy Lee in the Derby to win over Sword Dancer by a nose. But Tomy Lee wasn’t entered in the Preakness or the Belmont, and Shoemaker rode Sword Dancer as runner-up in the Preakness and to victory in the Belmont Stakes.
Shoemaker’s 1962 Belmont winner, Jaipur, was just the opposite of easy-going Gallant Man.
“He was the toughest horse I ever rode,” said Shoemaker. “It was so hard to get the run out of him because of his temperament. He was a pretty good horse, but he was very, very temperamental.
“Sometimes I couldn’t get him to the gate. I’d try to get the pony boy to help me and (Jaipur) would go for a ways and stop and I couldn’t get him to move. I didn’t want to use the whip too much because it would make him mad, and then he’d sulk and wouldn’t run at all.”
Jaipur, with Shoemaker aboard, won the Travers Stakes by a nose over Ridan to be named champion 3-year-old male of 1962. The win is still counted by Bloodhorse as one of horse racing’s 100 greatest moments.
Damascus, the clear favorite to win the 1967 Kentucky Derby, was defeated by 30-1 shot Proud Clarion in a fast-paced rally that saw him catch runner-up and 15-1 shot Barbs Delight by a length.
“Damascus was the best three-year-old, but he got hot in the Derby,” said Shoemaker, referring to the sultry weather and noisy spectators that unnerved the already high-strung colt that day in 1967†at Churchill Downs.
“He probably should have been a Triple Crown winner. Why he didn’t win the Derby, I don’t know. He beat all those other horses in the Preakness and the Belmont.”
In addition to the Preakness and the Belmont, Damascus counted nine more stakes races among his 1967 victories. The Woodward, where he defeated Dr. Fager and Buckpasser, clinched his selection as 1967† Horse of the Year.
Shoemaker’s fifth Belmont Stakes win came aboard Avatar, who he had ridden as runner-up in the 1975 Kentucky Derby. Sent off at 13-1 in the Belmont, Avatar held off Foolish Pleasure to win by neck. One month later, Foolish Pleasure was the default winner in a match at Belmont Park against undefeated filly Ruffian, who broke her right fore leg during the race and ultimately had to be destroyed.
Ferdinand didn’t win the Belmont Stakes. He finished third on a sloppy track to Danzig Connection. But Shoemaker’s experience with him in the 1986 Kentucky Derby was similar to Garrett Gomez’s in this year’s Derby aboard the favorite Lookin at Lucky.
Ferdinand had a better outcome thanks to the cool head of Shoemaker, while Lookin at Lucky, who would go on to win the Preakness under a new rider, finished sixth in his Kentucky Derby bid.
“Ferdinand was (post position) number one in the Derby and they all came over and pushed him into the rail,” Shoemaker explained. “I had to really put a strong hold on him to either slow him down or stop him, and by the time I got to the first turn, I was last.
“So I said to myself, don’t panic and don’t move him up too fast. Take your time and try to get him through this big field without having to stop him too much. If he’s got it in him, he’ll get the job done.
“At the quarter pole I was only about two lengths off the lead and just as I was debating whether to go around or wait to see what happened, I could see a hole develop and I ducked on the inside.
“I thought it was one of my best rides because I didn’t panic.”
Ferdinand won by 2 1/2 lengths.