Updated on 09/17/2011 12:39PM

First and foremost, a jockey


WASHINGTON - When Bud Delp was training the great Spectacular Bid, he needed a jockey to handle the colt in the latter part of his career. He could have obtained the services of any rider in the world, but his choice was a foregone conclusion. "When you think of jockeys," Delp said, "you think of Shoemaker."

Indeed, Bill Shoemaker was almost universally regarded as the quintessential member of his profession. Although a case could be made that some of his contemporaries - such as Angel Cordero Jr. and Laffit Pincay Jr. - were equally talented, Shoemaker was the only one who became an icon. And he will remain one long after his death Sunday at the age of 72.

Shoemaker's achievements were prolific. In a 41-year career, he won 8,833 races, a record eventually eclipsed by Pincay. He rode Spectacular Bid throughout his perfect 1980 season, arguably the greatest single campaign by any American racehorse. He won virtually every important race in America, including the Kentucky Derby four times. In one of the most remarkable performances of his life, the 54-year-old Shoe became the oldest jockey to win the Derby with a flawless ride aboard Ferdinand in 1986.

But what distinguished Shoemaker more than any single feat was his style - as well as a personality that complemented that style. He came of age in an era when top jockeys were usually distinguished by their combativeness and physicality. Riders tried to intimidate their rivals on the track and frequently brawled with them off the track.

Yet from the moment he launched his riding career in California in 1949, Shoemaker was different. "When I first came around," he wrote in his memoir, 'The Shoe,' "everybody said, 'This kid never moves on a horse, what the hell is he doing?' I didn't know I wasn't moving. When I took a look I could see that I wasn't whipping and slashing and jumping around like the other riders. . . . I started winning races and horses ran for me."

Horses ran for him, he believed, because the majority of them respond best to a light touch - to subtle signals from a jockey's hands rather than the slashing of the whip. Shoemaker might not have possessed the power of Pincay or the ruthless tactical sense of Cordero, but he had a seemingly magical way of communicating with horses, and trainers revered him.

"He fit Spectacular Bid perfectly," Delp recalled Sunday. "Bid liked to be rated but not restrained, and Shoe would rate him with those light hands. He knew just how to get him to relax."

Shoe had a gentle touch off the track, too. He never feuded or skirmished with fellow riders. He carried himself with such dignity that owners, trainers and racing officials universally respected him. His reputation wasn't even damaged when he made the worst mistake of his career, misjudging the finish line at Churchill Downs and costing Gallant Man victory in the 1957 Kentucky Derby.

According to Jim Bolus's book "Run for the Roses," trainer John Nerud was seething with anger when Shoemaker walked up to him after the race and said softly, "I'm sorry, John, I made a mistake." Later Nerud would describe Shoe as "a little gentleman and a great rider - the greatest rider of all."

In the latter years of his racing career, Shoemaker told an interviewer: "If I had everything to do over again, I wouldn't have stood up early on Gallant Man. But I wouldn't do anything else different." He said that, of course, before the terrible events of April 8, 1991, that changed his life.

Shoemaker had retired from the saddle in 1990, albeit reluctantly. His skills had declined embarrassingly in the final years of his career; even his longtime friend and patron, trainer Charlie Whittingham, stopped using his services. After a "farewell tour" on which he collected appearance fees from any track that would pay him, he launched a career as a trainer.

With so many friends in the business eager to help him, Shoemaker obtained good horses to train and he appeared on his way to becoming a significant force in his new profession.

But when his Ford Bronco veered off a highway and plunged down a 50-foot embankment, Shoemaker was left a quadriplegic. After months of rehabilitation, he left the hospital and went back to training - this time supervising his horses from a wheelchair. After the accident, he had only limited success as a trainer before he retired in 1997, and his reputation suffered as well.

News reports revealed that his blood-alcohol content at the time of the accident was more than double the legal limit. Shoemaker never acknowledged responsibility for his actions and instead sued the state of California as well as the hospital that treated him, and collected a settlement from Ford. Although the Los Angeles Times was deluged with letters to the editor denouncing his greed and irresponsibility, that backlash was temporary. Most people are willing to forget Shoemaker's human failings, but they will never forget the image of him in the saddle, guiding his mounts with that magical soft touch.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post