10/12/2003 11:00PM

Bill Shoemaker, 1931-2003

Benoit & Associates
Bill Shoemaker won 8,833 races, four Kentucky Derbies, and 17 straight riding titles at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - He came into the world weighing just 2 1/2 pounds, but with a fighting spirit that allowed him to survive. He left, 72 years later, with a broken body, but with that spirit still resolute. It was that resolve that allowed Bill Shoemaker to become the world's winningest rider, become racing's best-known celebrity, and carry on through the last 12 years of his life after an auto accident left him a quadriplegic.

Shoemaker's determination was recalled on Monday at Santa Anita, as the reality of his death the previous morning took hold. Santa Anita's infield flags flew at half-staff both Sunday and Monday. A brief winner's circle ceremony, featuring a moving video, was held in his memory after Sunday's second race. And a wreath was placed next to a bronze bust of Shoemaker that is adjacent to those of Johnny Longden and Laffit Pincay Jr. at Santa Anita.

"He was exactly the same after the accident, other than being able to walk around," said Paddy Gallagher, the trainer who was Shoemaker's assistant at the time of the accident. "Maybe inside he was different, but he never expressed it on the outside."

Shoemaker died in his sleep early Sunday morning, his tiny, aging body worn out. He had made infrequent appearances at the track in recent months. Shoemaker never made it to Del Mar this summer. His last public appearance was in July, when he came to Hollywood Park when Pincay, a close friend, was honored in a retirement ceremony.

"He went peacefully," Gallagher said, "which is the way he was himself."

The 4-foot-11 Shoemaker was to racing what Babe Ruth was to baseball, what Michael Jordan was to basketball. He transcended the sport, with appearances on programs such as "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, and on USO tours to visit troops in Vietnam. He was the most recognizable figure in the sport. If you play word association, the name Shoemaker means jockey.

Shoemaker retired from a 41-year riding career in 1990, having won 8,833 races, more than any other jockey. Since then, only Pincay has passed him. Shoemaker won 21.9 percent of his rides, and his mounts earned $123,378,882.

His re"sume" is staggering. Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby four times. His last victory, on Ferdinand in 1986, made Shoemaker the oldest jockey to win the Derby. He was 54. Shoemaker also won the Preakness twice and the Belmont Stakes five times. He led the nation in stakes victories 14 times. He won the national money-won title 10 times, and five times won more races in a year than any other rider. He rode six winners on one card nine different times.

Shoemaker was the leading rider at Santa Anita for a remarkable 17 straight seasons, from 1951-67. He was the leading rider at Hollywood Park 18 seasons, and led the standings at Del Mar seven summers. He won the Santa Anita Handicap 11 times. He won the Santa Anita Derby and the Hollywood Gold Cup eight times each.

He was loyal. He retained the late Harry Silbert as his agent for 37 years, and had lasting friendships with several of his fellow riders, most notably Pincay, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Don Pierce. He had a strong benevolent streak. He was elected president of the Jockeys' Guild in 1975 and served in that capacity until his retirement.

Billie Lee Shoemaker was born Aug. 19, 1931, in Fabens, Texas. He was so small at birth that his grandmother wrapped him in a blanket, opened the oven, and placed him on the oven door. His family moved to California when he was a youth, and he gained his first noteworthy riding experience at the Suzy Q Ranch, the training ground for a number of Western horsemen of that era.

Shoemaker began riding professionally in 1949, winning his first race on April 20 of that year at Golden Gate Fields. His career skyrocketed from there. In 1950, Shoemaker tied with Joe Culmone for the national riding title with 388 victories. He won his first national money title in 1951. He won his first Kentucky Derby in 1955, with Swaps. By 1958, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, becoming the youngest ever at that time.

"He brought a new style to racing," trainer Bruce Headley, who was a classmate of Shoemaker's at Suzy Q, said Monday at Santa Anita. "Up until then, riders thought they had to jack a horse out of the gate and take a hold. He had a light touch. He didn't pull on a horse's mouth. He balanced himself on his toes. He was pitched forward. Whether his horses started off first, in the middle, or last, they were very comfortable."

Shoemaker committed a notorious gaffe in the 1957 Kentucky Derby, when he misjudged the finish line and stood up too soon on Gallant Man, who was defeated by Iron Leige. Owner Ralph Lowe kept Shoemaker on Gallant Man, and he subsequently won the Belmont Stakes.

Shoemaker had to battle back from serious injuries in the late 1960's. He broke his leg at Santa Anita in 1968 and was off for 12 months. Two months after returning, he fractured his pelvis when a horse sat on him in the paddock at Hollywood Park.

In 1970, Shoemaker passed Longden to become the world's winningest jockey, with 6,033 winners. The next year, Santa Anita unveiled a bronze in Shoemaker's honor.

The latter part of Shoemaker's career saw some of his most memorable rides. The Derby victory in 1986 with Ferdinand was achieved in concert with trainer Charlie Whittingham, with whom Shoemaker won scores of races. Shoemaker, Whittingham, and Ferdinand also teamed to win the 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic.

Shoemaker won the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981 in a thrilling finish with John Henry. He won the 1976 Marlboro Cup with Forego, who courageously lugged 137 pounds. And in 1980, Shoemaker rode Spectacular Bid to an unbeaten Horse of the Year campaign. Shoemaker would later say Spectacular Bid was the best horse he rode.

Shoemaker announced his retirement in the fall of 1988 and embarked on a farewell tour that lasted one year. His final ride came on Feb. 3, 1990, at Santa Anita.

Shoemaker, assisted by Gallagher, began training almost immediately, and had solid success with a midsized barn that included several stakes winners.

On April 8, 1991, Shoemaker was paralyzed from the neck down in a one-car accident. After undergoing rehabilitation in Colorado, Shoemaker returned and continued to train until retiring in 1997.

Shoemaker had a keen sense of mischief. He was the jockeys' room's resident practical joker, putting shaving cream in boots and rubber snakes in coolers. Shoemaker would sneak up behind unsuspecting visitors and pinch them, or tap his whip lightly in a sensitive area.

Shoemaker was married and divorced three times, to the former Ginny McLaughlin, Babbs Bayer, and Cindy Barnes. With Cindy, Shoemaker had a daughter, Amanda, who is 23. Shoemaker also adopted three children in his two prior marriages.

There will be no funeral for Shoemaker. "He didn't want one," said his attorney, Neil Papiano. A memorial service is planned at Santa Anita next week, but it had yet to be determined if it would be held on Monday or Tuesday, both of which are dark days.