08/12/2011 3:28PM

History Challenge: The Shoe outshined all his challengers

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Eighty years ago this week, a future Hall of Fame rider was born at home near rural Fabens, Texas. He was a month premature and weighed less than three pounds.

The doctor placed the infant on the bed and told his mother he wouldn’t make it through the night.

As the jockey explained in his second autobiography in 1988, his grandmother didn’t want to accept that, so she wrapped the baby in a blanket, turned on the stove, and placed him on a pillow on the open oven door – an improvised incubator.

The baby survived. William Lee Shoemaker had scored his first, and most important, victory that night of Aug. 19, 1931. When he retired from riding in 1990, his name was a household word and he had ridden the winners of more races than any jockey in history – 8,833.

Dubbed simply “The Shoe” for most of his career, the future rider moved to Southern California when he was 10. He dropped out of school in the 11th grade to work full time at Suzy Q Ranch – a horse farm in La Puente. “I found my niche in life,” he said.

Test your knowledge of The Shoe and riders who challenged him on the way to the top.

1. Bill Shoemaker’s first introduction to the racetrack came in 1948 when he and a fellow worker from Suzy Q Ranch drove to San Francisco and went to nearby Bay Meadows. The Shoe met Hurst Philpot, who at the time was training horses for the likes of Charles S. Howard of Seabiscuit fame, and was hired as an exercise rider.

Philpot thought Shoemaker, who weighed less than 90 pounds, was too small to be a jockey, so later that year The Shoe went to Del Mar on his own and hooked up with a trainer who took an apprentice contract on him and gave him his start in the saddle. Name the trainer.

2. Walter Miller was among the first group of riders inducted into racing’s new Hall of Fame in 1955. A riding sensation in the early years of the 20th century, Miller rode an astounding 388 winners in 1906 – a record that was not broken for 46 years.

In 1950, Bill Shoemaker – who lost his apprentice allowance in April – tied Miller’s record on the last day of the year. But he had to share the honor and that year’s riding title with another new hot-shot jockey. Name him.

3. The year 1953 belonged to The Shoe. He rode a breathtaking 485 winners from 1,683 mounts (29 percent). On 30 days that year he rode four or more winners on a single card. In one three-day period at Tanforan near San Francisco, Shoemaker rode 14 winners in 22 races.
But the honor of breaking Walter Miller’s record set in 1906 eluded Shoemaker. A year earlier, this ill-fated jockey easily won the national riding championship with a new mark of 390 winners. Name him.

4. On Dec. 10, 1999 at Hollywood Park, Laffit Pincay Jr. rode his 8,834th winner to surpass Bill Shoemaker as racing’s all-time leading rider in number of winners.

The Shoe had held the record for nearly 30 years. On Labor Day 1970, aboard the filly Dares  J, Shoemaker broke the record for most winners by a rider in the history of the sport when he scored his 6,033rd lifetime win. Whose record did Shoemaker break?

5. Million-dollar races are common today. The first Thoroughbred race to carry a $1 million purse was the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981. The winner by a nose was the venerable John Henry. The rider was – who else? – Bill Shoemaker.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, the gold standard in stakes racing was $100,000-added. The nomination, eligibility, and starting fees of some races would at times swell the total gross purse to two or three times that figure. It wasn’t until 1951 that the gross for a stakes race surpassed $200,000 for the first time. And the winning rider was Bill Shoemaker. Name the race.

History Challenge answers

1. While he was with Hurst Philpot for only a brief time exercising horses in 1948, Bill Shoemaker said he learned a great deal and got to work with Philpot’s regular rider, Johnny Adams, a three-time national champion jockey in races won.

But it was trainer George Reeves who first believed enough in The Shoe to give him a leg up in a race.

After Shoemaker exercised horses for Reeves for seven months, the trainer gave him his first mount at Golden Gate Fields on March 19, 1949. On April 20 at the same track, riding only his third career race, The Shoe scored his maiden victory on Shafter V (paying $21 to win).
Reeves also was instrumental in introducing Shoemaker to Harry Silbert, who became the jockey’s agent for his first victory in 1949 and every one after that until his final ride in 1990 – an unbroken association of more than 40 years.

Shoemaker soared as an apprentice the rest of 1949 and finished the year as the nation’s second leading rider in number of wins (219).

2. Joe Culmone immigrated to the United States when he was 15 in 1946. He rode his first winner two years later at Tropical Park in Florida. In 1950, Culmone trailed Shoemaker in wins for most of the year, but closed the gap to tie him on the next to last day of the year. Each had 385 winners.

With the last day of the year on Sunday – and no racing in the United States – Culmone went to Oriental Park in Havana, Cuba, and The Shoe went to Agua Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico. Each rode three winners to tie Walter Miller’s 44-year-old record.

Culmone continued to ride another 22 years, but he never again gained that level of success. Tall for a jockey, he was soon taking diet pills 11 months of the year and limiting his eating to two small meals a day.

His last major stakes wins came in the Bay Shore and Swift stakes at Aqueduct in 1968 aboard Clever Foot.

The pills and dieting ruined his health and Culmone suffered a stroke in his late 40s. He died in 1996.

3. In 1975, popular writer Frank Deford won an Eclipse Award for a Sports Illustrated article on Tony DeSpirito entitled, “The Kid Who Ran Into Doors.”

DeSpirito was only 16 in 1952 when he broke the 46-year-old record for winners by a jockey in one year. He ended the year with 390 wins.
The great Eddie Arcaro proclaimed that DeSpirito was his heir, but it was not to be. DeSpirito was stronger than Shoemaker, but lacked his maturity and racing luck.

In the years following his record-setting season, DeSpirito was involved in some horrific spills – more than one of which nearly cost him his life. The hospital stays and days of rehabilitation, combined with an extravagant lifestyle and frequent womanizing, ruined his career and his life. He died at age 39.

4. On Labor Day 1970 at Del Mar, Bill Shoemaker broke the world record for winners set by John Longden, who retired in 1966 with 6,032 winners.

Longden had held the record for 14 years. Coincidentally, he broke the previous record set by England’s Gordon Richards also on Labor Day and also at Del Mar. Longden’s record-breaking 4,871st winner came aboard Arrogate in the 1956 Del Mar Handicap.

Longden’s final win in 1966 aboard George Royal in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap was called “the most moving, the most melodramatic day in the history of California racing,” by Daily Racing Form columnist Leon Rasmussen.

5. Future Hall of Fame jockey Ralph Neves was supposed to ride Great Circle in the 1951 Santa Anita Maturity (now the Strub Stakes), but somehow he had angered trainer Warren Stute, who let 19-year-old Bill Shoemaker have the mount.

With a gross purse of $205,700, the Maturity was the richest race ever run in America to that date.

Great Circle gave Shoemaker his first win in a six-figure race and his ninth win in a stakes race. He would ride exactly 1,000 more.