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Interview: Hall of Fame Jockey Bill Shoemaker: Part 2 Of 2

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 I conducted this interview with Hall of Fame Jockey, Bill Shoemaker and his wife, Cindy, in June 1980 at both Hollywood Park and at his home in San Marino, California.

At that time, Shoemaker, a legend in Thoroughbred Racing, had won more races — more than 8000 — and more money — more than $82 million — than any jockey in the history of the sport. He has won virtually every stakes race in America including 4 Kentucky Derbies, 2 Preaknesses,  5 Belmonts and 11 Triple Crowns.. Among Shoemaker’s record-breaking totals are 10 National Money Titles and 5 championships as the Year’s Winningest Rider. He won in England, Ireland, South Africa and Argentina; and he won purses of more than $123 million. He also owned every major Delmar Racetrack record including seven seasonal titles.

Three years ago he married Cindy. At the time of this interview, at the age of 50, The Shoe is the proud father of his firstborn child, Amanda, his and Cindy’s beautiful one-year-old daughter.

 

This is part 2 of a 2-part interview. Click Here to Go to Part 1

Bill: I’ve been riding a long time. I enjoy it. I was successful. I was good at it. Anytime that happens you’re going to enjoy it a lot more than if you weren’t successful.

Do you consider yourself particularly gifted as a jockey? Or was it a lot of hard work?

It was never hard for me because I enjoyed it. I think some guys have a gift, a God-given gift, the horses run for them, or they have a feeling, some kind of rapport that you don’t make; it’s there and I have it. I always did. Long before I knew anything about race riding.

You say that it comes easy for you, a God-given talent. If so, have you realized your potential to the best of your ability?

No, I don’t ride now as much as I used to. When I was young I rode every day. As many horses as I could. Nine mounts a day. Every day for a lot of years.

Do you practice or workout in preparation for racing?

No, not really. I mean, you walk a horse in the morning but we do that for the horse, not for us guys who are pros, already there. Some guys workout to improve their technique. But I don’t do that.

Does it ever occur to you that you are the best at what you do? Do you think about that?

Yeah, I think about it. But I don’t really think I’m the best. There’s a lot of guys just as good as I am.

You mean, “Given enough time”?

They are as good or better right now. They’re young and strong. To suggest otherwise is part of the myth.

It’s difficult to believe you can be the greatest jockey of all time and not have worked hard at it.

I’ve been that way all my life. It came pretty easy. Maybe it came easy because I like it. Not that I didn’t work, but that I enjoyed it. And it wasn’t hard for me.

You never tried to be the best?

I’m not saying I didn’t try to do that, I just never thought of it that way. I think there were a lot of guys riding with me that were just as good as I was. Maybe I was just a little more fortunate. That’s the way I look at it.

Riding horses and winning racing is something I enjoy doing. It has meant a lot to me in the sense it has given me financial security, prestige.

Bill, both you and Cindy, your wife, have enjoyed incredible good fortune, for proportionately little effort. You, Bill, because you have wound up at the top of your profession without trying it without ever really working hard toward that goal as opposed to, say, an actor who starved for 10 years before he made it.

In your case, Cindy, you’ll been elevated socially through marriage and that, too, is a winning without any focused effort on your part.

Cindy: Yes, but my father was a Brigadier General in the army, so, I grew up having a lot of nice things around. My parents always tried to give my sister and me the best of what they could and there was a lot of social functions and things. It was my mother that had to deal with different things that I deal with now.

Cindy, you’ve been a winner all your life. Have you ever had tough times?

Cindy: I can’t say “Yes”. I mean, I’d have to say “No”. Really, honestly,  and truly  not. Probably the toughest thing was when my father had cancer and, thank God, he was able to beat it. That was probably the toughest.

When I wanted to go to a certain school, I could go and I had the grades to do it. We had horses. We enjoy showing them and  riding  them.

What has winning given me? It’s given me a lovely home  and  a lot of niceties.

Cindy, how do you measure whether or not you’re winning? Is it just the home, or the niceties around you, or is there another way of measuring it?

Cindy: I don’t really know. I just feel very fortunate. I never really stopped to think about it. You’re making me think. It’s a question that has not been asked before.

You might say that winning is going into a restaurant where you make reservations and you get seated 10 minutes sooner because of who you are. But it doesn’t really bother me. If there is a long wait at one restaurant, there’s always plenty of others in the area.

Bill, unlike Cindy, you are the son of a sharecropper. You did not grow up with money. At what point in your life did money become an important measure of success?

I don’t remember ever thinking about being poor. We always had plenty of food and whatever we wanted. I can’t remember ever really wanting for anything.

So, sharecroppers’ son that you are, your life has never been one of climbing out of poverty?

No. Even when I was working on the thoroughbred ranch, I got $75 per month plus room and board. I was 14 or 15 and I had money for whatever I wanted to do.

I even saved up and bought myself a car. A Model A Ford. I can never remember being unable to do something because I didn’t have the money.

So money has never been a criteria for you?

Yeah, I’m not a big spender, so to speak. I mean I have a nice house, but I don’t have a Rolls-Royce. I have a little BMW.

Cindy: I think the one thing about winning is how you cope with it — there is a certain amount of humbleness required, I think. Sometimes you’re in a winning position and sometimes you’re not, and somebody else is.

Bill: Yes — coping. I agree. One of the reasons Americans are not well thought out in other parts of the world is because of instances like that kid, McEnroe , who is very talented yet has manners. To me, he wasn’t brought up the right way.

Cindy: well, he may have been brought up right, Bill…

Bill: If a kid was brought up the right way he wouldn’t do those kinds of things, wouldn’t say the kinds of things he says, act the way he does. In my opinion, he wouldn’t be rude.

Cindy: There is a lot of children I think who have been brought up the right way but then after a certain point the parents have to let go in the hope that what they have instilled in their child carries on. Yet, once they are turned loose, maybe they never like saying, “Yes, ma’am, no sir, thank you” — maybe they did only because they were under their parents guidance.

Is there something about our society as a whole that produces McEnroes or is he the exception?

Bill: I don’t know the answer to that.

Because when you say that may be why people overseas don’t like us, is it that they noticed the exception or are they noticing a country as a whole that is like McEnroe?

Bill: I think there are a lot of people in America that give that impression when they go to Europe. I try to do the opposite.

Cindy: You’ve just got to try real hard not to act like McEnroe. A little self-restraint. I don’t think I’ve ever let myself get to the point where I wanted to do something like that in public.

Bill, what are you doing as a father to prevent Amanda from turning out like McEnroe?

Bill: Well, I hope she’ll take an example from her father, number one. Read stories about me. Watch me and how I conduct myself with people. That sort of example will help I’m sure. Disciplining her and loving her at the same time. I think that makes for a strong character.

I think a lot of my success is because I paid attention when I was a kid and worked hard. I did everything they told me to do and more. To get started. I did all that. But I enjoyed it. It didn’t bother me. It wasn’t like I was doing something I didn’t want to do or because I had to do it. I did it because I like it and I wanted to do it.

And that might be the attitude that made a lot of difference.

You know, Bill and Cindy, correct me if I am wrong, but you have an awful lot to be thankful for.

Bill: Yes, we do. Absolutely, I have been fortunate all my life.

Cindy: We really do.

Does either of you feel obligated to give more of yourself to the world around you as a way of maybe balancing the scales for your good fortune? For example, Bill, you are terribly gifted and, like you say, you haven’t had to work real hard to be great — do you feel a responsibility to push yourself even harder because you are gifted?

Bill: No, I don’t really think about it. I do what I do because I like it and I do the best job I can because I know people bet on horses.

I don’t think about pushing myself; I’ve never done that in my life.

I’ve never gotten too low, either. Just a nice happy medium.

Cindy, what about you? Does your good fortune ever make you feel like you should do more with yourself, motivate you to somehow do something beyond normal?

Cindy: In what respect?

The fact that you’ve been fortunate, as has Bill — he’s blessed with incredible talent — does that ever motivate you to want to give more of yourself to the community you live in, the world you live in, whatever?

Cindy: Well, I don’t mean for this to sound selfish, but our life is filled with so many things I don’t have time to do the community services or whatever. My life is keeping my home comfortable and clean.

My days are “get up with Amanda and get her fed and then I try to go riding, then I come home in time for Bill to go to work and then I pick up around the house — dusting and vacuuming and laundry — and Wednesdays are my days for running errands outside the house and Thursdays are when I try to spend all my afternoons with Amanda and Friday mornings I go riding –

Their Good and Easy Life Ended in April 1991 and they faced the lowest point of their lives …

Shoemaker rode for the final time in 1990 left racing for the life of a trainer at Santa Anita, where he had met his greatest success as a rider. But in April 1991, his life took a turn after he had played a round of golf with his riding and golfing partner of 30 years, Don Pierce.

They had, Shoemaker said later, two beers at the Sierra La Verne Golf Club near Arcadia before leaving. Shoemaker recalled that he was alone in his 1990 Ford Bronco II when he reached for his cellphone, lost control of the car and spun down a steep embankment.

When he came to, his spinal cord was severed. He was paralyzed with little or no movement below the armpits and destined to live in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  

Cindy divorced him 3 years after the accident. 

But the Shoe never quit. After months of rehabilitation, he returned to Santa Anita to resume his life training horses from a wheelchair, uncomplaining, unconquered. “I was lucky,” he reflected.  “I rode for 40 years, in 40,000 races, and had a lot of falls. But I never had any spinal injuries or anything like that. Then an automobile got me. So, you never know.”

He retired as a trainer in November 1997, having saddled horses with earnings of nearly $3.7 million. He died October 12, 2003 in his sleep, at age 72, in his home in San Marino where this interview had been conducted.

Go to Part 1

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2 Comments - (Leave a comment! »)

  • Sam - Pakistan said:

    I liked this article so much. It was so inspiration for me. especially when interviewer said to bill shoemaker. In 1968, when you severely broke your leg and had reason to believe you might never race again — was that a low point of your life?. And bill replied, “The reality of life in an efficient way is, I thought about it and I decided if that’s the way it’s going to be, that’s the way it’s going to be. I’m not going to cry about it. That’s the way life is. I figured whatever I was going to do, I was going to have to do. I don’t worry about anything I can’t control…. “

  • Obrey – California said:

    This caught my eye — only because I’m a racing fan and followed Shoe’s career from the time I was told enough to sneak up to the window to make a bet.
    What I was looking for in this piece was something I didn’t know about Shoemaker. I go for trinkets of information that rarely comes out about them.
    Everything I read about Shoemaker in this piece was pretty much well known, both in my own mind but in the racing community, including his private life. Believe me, if I’d ever had the chance to talk with Shoemaker, I’d have focused (or tried, at least) on aspects about his riding career that weren’t all that well known. Picking up on raising his daughter not to be like John McEnroe isn’t exactly “news.”
    I did appreciate the update on Shoe’s life a decade, or so later — his accident, divorce, etc.
    There were some interesting points, such as his opinion of McEnroe, which is newsy since we have one superstar criticizing another. That’s always worth a headline. I’m not a big fan of the Q&A format, though. I prefer to get a couple hours in with a person, listen for their pulse points, come up with a lead and develop the piece from there.
    Funny story, though. About 15 years ago, I was standing in line at a store in Beaumont and started chatting with a gentleman in line. I know I’d seen him somewhere. Finally, it hit me. It was Johnny Longden, the ex-jockey who was one of Shoemaker’s great riding rivals in the 1950s. Johnny had retired to Sun Lakes in Banning.

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