On this day 1986, race rider Bill Shoemaker steered a rangy cold named Ferdinand to victory in the Kentucky Derby. Already a Hall of Famer, "The Shoe" was 54 years old. He was an inspiration for many reasons besides his age. For one thing, he was diminutive even for a jockey. As turf writer Terry Conway noted, "At 4 feet 11 inches tall and 98 pounds, it didn't look like Bill Shoemaker could muscle a few sacks of groceries, let alone control a head-strong thoroughbred a dozen times his weight."
But long before the phrase "horse whisperer" entered the lexicon, Shoe had a way of gently coaxing top performance from his mounts. "Horses would run for him, and I've always wanted to know why," Hall of Famer Eddie Arcaro once told Sports Illustrated. "Shoe got them to run without pushing them. He takes such light hold of a horse that he could probably ride with silk threads for reins."
There was adversity, too, which is common for jockeys. Not just the injuries in frightful spills that Johnny Velazquez and almost all the top riders have experienced, but also misjudging the finish line in the Kentucky Derby. Shoemaker did this twice, if you can believe that, and when he stood up in the irons prematurely while aboard Gallant Man in 1957, it cost him and the horse the victory.
He rode competitively for the last time on Feb. 3, 1990, while aboard 7-year-old Patchy Groundfog in an afternoon turf race that Santa Anita Park had billed as "The Legend's Last Ride." The legend and his mount were the crowd's sentimental betting favorites that day, and even eminent race caller Trevor Denman set aside his normal impartiality and exhorted the rider with a "C'mon, Shoe!" as the horse took the lead at the top of the stretch.
As I wrote in this space a few years ago, Patchy Groundfog faded to finish fourth that day. But Bill Shoemaker was not the kind of person to just fade away. In retirement, he became a trainer, and was pursuing this vocation on April 8, 1991, when, while driving on a deserted stretch of highway he lost control of his Ford Bronco, which plunged down an embankment. The crash left Shoemaker paralyzed from the neck down.
He resumed training horses in a supervisory role less than six months later, sharing his wisdom from a wheelchair. He retired from training on Nov. 3, 1997, having won $3.7 million in earnings, and died in his sleep at home in San Marino, Calif., on Oct. 12, 2003.
Shoe left us with the memories of his many remarkable rides, his consummate professionalism, and these inspiring words: "I never gave up," he told writer Ron Flatter. "A few times I didn't think I was going to make it. But I never quit."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.