TCS Daily


The Finest Saddle Shoe

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - October 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Racing writers and track enthusiasts have focused attention on the remarkably strong hands of the great jockey who died this past weekend. Those who had shaken his hand often remarked on the strength of the grip. But good jockeys, like good racecar drivers, all have strong grips.

Those familiar with "Shoe" and his remarkable career (8,833 wins, $123 million in purses) often noted that despite his essential hand strength he had "soft hands" that deftly -- almost magically -- used the reins to guide the thundering horses beneath his 100-pound body.

Willie Shoemaker had all the great physical and mental qualities of a great jockey, but he had something more. It was an intuitive quality that only a handful of really great athletes have. Ted Williams had it. It enhanced his incredible eyesight and batting reflexes. It enabled him to know something about the baseball speeding toward him that even the pitcher didn't always know.

I'm certainly no expert on horse racing. Although I enjoy the sport I don't follow it avidly. But I have always been fascinated with Willie Shoemaker because of that peculiar quality of intuition he demonstrated on the track.

It is said that many jockeys have imitated Shoemaker's serene, not to say dead still, riding style. But many of them ended up getting very busy in the saddle in the homestretch, because there was more substance than style to Shoemaker's way of riding.

It was a hidden substance.

It was that intuition at work.

It was always there but you really couldn't see it.

I think that's what former jockey Chris McCarron (now general manager of Santa Anita) meant when he called Shoemaker's riding style "deceiving."

"It's a puzzlement to me," said McCarron, "how the guy got runs out of horse after horse after horse after horse."

Horse after horse, indeed. Shoemaker, who started as a 16-year-old exercise boy, rode in his first professional race on March 19, 1949. He would ride in 40,351 more races over the next 41 years. That's almost a thousand a year.

He rode 218 winners in his first year of racing. Six times in his career he rode six winners in a single day of racing. He won the Kentucky Derby four times.

Somewhere, somehow, sometime in all those rides this champion's intuition developed. It differed from what Ted Williams knew about a fastball because it was an intuition about another living thing -- a beautiful, temperamental, headlong-at-high-speed beast that outweighed Shoemaker about 15 to 1 and took him into the midst of a noisy, jolting, terrifying, dangerous place called the home stretch.

Shoemaker actually shared his intuition with the horses he rode to wins. If a horse had it, Shoemaker found it. Some magical transmission took place -- a subtle communication; a message in the almost subliminal movement of the inside of the knees, a vibration read through flanks and withers.

In fractions of seconds, as man and horse pounded through a roaring, rail bound universe, things were taught and learned, encouragement was given, excitement was shared. And all the while, Shoe appeared almost to be floating on a saddled cloud.

But his face was the giveaway. The lips were pursed, the eyes narrowed in concentration, and the whole visage frozen, giving a powerful sense that amid all the chaos Shoemaker was listening to his horse.

If you would try to understand the greatness of Shoemaker you should see film of his last Derby win. It was 1986. He was 54 years old. He was riding an 18-to-1 shot named Ferdinand.

Words fail. Get the video. Watch Shoemaker patiently, deliberately thread his horse up through the pack until, at the top of the stretch, he finds a sliver of an opening at the rail. He's through. He's in front, and that's it. Ferdinand wins by 2 ½ lengths.

You can read all the obituaries and the tributes. See the lights and shadows of his life; the last 12 years lived while paralyzed from the chest down after an auto accident. But none of it can really explain that ultimate inner quality. I don't think Shoemaker could explain it, and to his credit he never tried. It was his gift. A rare gift. And a wonderful thing to see.

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