William Lee Shoemaker, better known as Bill Shoemaker, was born in 1931. He weighed in at a minute 2.5 pounds at birth and was so small and weak that he was not expected to survive his first night. Yet, in true Bill Shoemaker form, he went on to not only survive, but to become one of the most legendary American jockeys to walk the face of the planet. As an adult, Shoemaker height measured 4’11’’, with his weight being under 100 pounds. He had a light bone structure and so was naturally light. This meant he had the rare privilege of being able to eat whatever he wanted and still maintain his weight. The good food certainly kept his spirits up and he was not only a quick thinker during the races but also a known prankster.
William Shoemaker was known more for his way of handling horses than he was for his actual winnings. However, he certainly did have an impressive list of accomplishments. He finished in the top three in nearly half of the races he ran and the collective winnings of the horses he rode amounted to more than $123 million. In all, Shoemaker won 8,833 races. This includes 11 wins at Triple Crown events. Shoemaker would often describe his riding style as ‘staying out of the horses way’ to the greatest extent possible. He had a light touch on the reins and communicated his will to the horses in the most sensitive way possible. In this way, he was able to encourage the horse to want to run it’s heart out instead of forcing it to go beyond what it was maybe willing to give. The horses responded to his unique style of riding and it didn’t take long before Shoemaker had garnered a brilliant reputation as a great American jockey.
Shoemaker was light, athletic and fun loving. In his early racing career he was fairly lucky and seldom got hurt. Off the track he was unpretentious and during his later life he was a devoted father. Though he often considered the highlight of his career to be his win at the Kentucky Derby in 1986, it was probably his run at the Kentucky Derby that put him in the history books. It was at that race that he won for the fourth time at 54 years of age. This made him the oldest jockey to ever win the Kentucky Derby. Not long afterwards, Shoemaker decided to retire from competitive racing. He was 58 years of age. Unfortunately he was paralysed in a car accident just one year later but he did not let this stop him from turning out some spectacular race horses as a trainer. His horses won 90 races. Bill Shoemaker died in his sleep on October 12, 2003 at 72 years of age. He is remembered as a great horse racing legend and his legacy helped shape the face of horse racing in America.