Willie Shoemaker at Del Mar, strong in wheelchair

Reader reporter brings him chopped liver sandwich and cries

Shoemaker in paddock area. His grandmother washed and wrapped the baby in a blanket and placed him on the door of the oven.
  • Shoemaker in paddock area. His grandmother washed and wrapped the baby in a blanket and placed him on the door of the oven.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

It’s Friday morning, August 19. Although I’m dressed in a Chanel-style blue-and-white suit, I’m not wearing an apron as I heap two inches of chopped liver on fresh egg bread. The sandwich is for Bill Shoemaker, arguably the most talented and famous jockey of this century.

About 15 years ago I spent the afternoon at the Del Mar racetrack with Harry Silbert, Shoemaker’s agent, who had encountered the 17-year-old, 4-foot, 11-inch, 100-pound apprentice when he worked for trainer George Reeves. There was something about the young boy’s intensity, his hunger for horses and the horseracing game that struck a chord in the older man. Silbert bought his contract — in which Shoemaker had no say. Thus began a business arrangement — based on a handshake — and a friendship that lasted from April 1949 until Silbert’s death in 1987.

Winners Circle, August, 1994. When you’re talking to Bill Shoemaker, you can’t ignore the fact that he’s immobilized.

Winners Circle, August, 1994. When you’re talking to Bill Shoemaker, you can’t ignore the fact that he’s immobilized.

One of the stories that Harry Silbert told me in his inimitable New Yorkese was how he had taught Bill Shoemaker to love chopped liver. Harry and his wife, Thelma, known to everyone as Temmie, had given a party for Bill (the first that anyone had ever held in his honor), and Temmie had prepared chopped liver for the occasion. Young Bill regarded the dish with horror, wouldn’t touch or taste it until Temmie persuaded him to try a brekala — literally, a crumb or tiny bit. “You know what?” Silbert elbowed my ribs as he joyously related the incident, “Bill loved it. He lived in La Jolla with us every summer during the Del Mar meet [before he got married], and chopped liver was his favorite. A kid from Fabens, Texas, a cotton-picking town, he gets to love chopped liver.”

In honor of this anecdote and because Shoemaker is now a quadriplegic with no movement in his arms or legs as a result of a car accident in 1991, I’m assembling a sandwich minutes before my taxi arrives. I want the food to be as fresh as possible before I hand it over.

At once my phone rings. It’s my son, calling from his car. He arose at 5:00 a.m. from his residence up north to rendezvous with me at the track by 9:30.

Jockeys area.  “One of your best racing moments?” Shoemaker doesn’t hesitate. “Ferdinand, in the Derby.

Jockeys area. “One of your best racing moments?” Shoemaker doesn’t hesitate. “Ferdinand, in the Derby.

“I’ve passed Irvine and I won’t be late,” he says. “But I called to tell you that today is Gentleman Shoe’s birthday.” Like many others, my son often affixes the word “Gentleman” to Shoe’s name because the jockey is always polite, soft-spoken, never gossips or raises his temper. My son’s voice rises. “I can’t believe we’re interviewing him on the day he’s 63.”

“That’s great,” I answer as I double-wrap the sandwich and place it in a spiffy, striped bag with a black handle.

But I don’t mention the gift because I don’t want him to protest that it’s schmaltzy. “See you soon.” I ring off and clap a fashionable, wide-brimmed straw hat on my head.

Ordinarily I wear sport clothes to the track because I stand at the paddock before the races and rush to the far turn in my jogging shoes to watch the horses pound to the finish line. But today the suit with the gold buttons, the fancy hat, are symbols of respect for Bill Shoemaker, unable to walk, let alone ride: for my father the horseplayer who died broke; for my son the handicapper. The difference between a horseplayer and a handicapper is winning.

Silks room

Silks room

Once in my taxi I’m aware of the pitfalls of conducting an interview during a birthday celebration. On September 10,1989, Shoe ran his last race at Del Mar before retiring in 1990. I was among the crowd who watched him bring Addie’s Bro to victory in the ninth race. Shoe was resplendent in yellow cap and yellow silks with dark sleeves. The roar of appreciation as he entered the winner’s circle could have shattered the sky, and the tears of sentiment would be sufficient for Shoemaker to walk on water.

In 41 years he had won 8333 races; ridden 40,350 mounts; been at the finish line for four Kentucky Derbys; had more winning-stakes races (at $100,000 and up) than anyone in the history of the sport. He had brought in $123 million in purses (figure roughly 10 percent for his own cut, minus the 10 percent or more that he paid his agent Harry Silbert, and you have his earnings). But a year after retirement he was felled by an automobile accident that placed him in a wheelchair. Now he trains horses, and the fabled statistics that rode behind him like a white plume in a knight’s helmet are remembered mostly by aficionados.

I had often wondered what this success cost him, the price he paid within himself. For example: how did he tolerate the constant repetition of the stories of his inconspicuous origins? He weighed one and a half pounds at birth, and the doctor threw him on the bed without giving his mother, Ruby, a word of comfort or hope for his survival. His grandmother, Maud Harris, washed and wrapped the baby in a blanket and placed him on the door of the oven. Neonatal units for premature infants did not exist in 1931; that he lived through the night was miraculous. (Whether he was actually placed in a shoebox remains apocryphal.)

Yet how often did he have to protect himself from the pain of knowing that he had been a “throwaway kid” or that his mother or aunt had said he “looked just like a rat” at birth? His parents had divorced when he was three. Though he had spent some time at his uncle’s ranch — he reports that he mounted a horse by himself at age four — he was sent from Texas to his father, who could better support him, in a small town outside Los Angeles. Bill never finished high school nor heard the word “jockey” until a female classmate introduced him to one. Shoemaker immediately took to the vigors of the horseracing world, never returned to school, and after being a “bug” (apprentice) was so “chilly” (poised in the saddle) that being noticed was inevitable. Yet the words “Tom Thumb,” “Miniature Man,” and “The Little Daddy” (after his daughter Amanda was born in 1980) continued to follow him.

Shoemaker, christened Billie Lee, does not like to be called “Willie.” His second wife, who ran with the jet set, thought William Shoemaker sounded more elegant than Bill, and thus he was often referred to as “Willie the Shoe.” He’s also been called “Silent Shoe” and “Button Lip.” Admittedly he doesn’t have Chris McCarran’s flair for storytelling, nor Eddie Delahoussaye’s Southern loquaciousness, nor even Laffit Pincay’s passionate expressions. One of the reasons Shoemaker is not anecdotal is because he was born with a dreadful overbite and poor teeth.

It is alleged that George Washington never smiled because he was ashamed to show his false wooden teeth. Bill Shoemaker didn’t have his teeth fixed and his bite corrected (at a cost of $10,000) until he was 27 years old. But apart from his teeth, his three failed marriages (particularly his last one to Cindy Barnes, the mother of his daughter) have kept him adrift in his silence.

So I really don’t know what to expect when shortly before 10:00 a.m., Dan Smith, media chief at the track, close friend and biographer of Bill Shoemaker, leads us to the backstretch.

A group has gathered outside Bill’s portable trailer. On a low table is a large sheet cake with white icing and red letters that read “Happy Birthday Boss.” Shoemaker is sitting in his automated chair, which cost about $10,000. It’s set in motion by a tube placed close to his mouth on which he alternately draws and puffs. He’s dressed in ankle-high, black-and-white jogging shoes, black cotton pants, a red knit shirt, a red windbreaker, and a red cap with his name on it. His feet are strapped down; his hands, though free, lie inert.

Everyone on his staff is present: male and female grooms, exercise riders, hot walkers. They have brought their children and their dogs. (Bill adores children and in the past worked with handicapped youngsters, even establishing a camp at which they could ride.) Friends are present, not only Dan Smith but Patrick “Paddy” Gallagher, who trains the horses with Shoe; longtime buddy Bruce Headly, also a trainer; and jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, who makes my heart beat faster, not only because I admire him as a jockey but because he’s so foxy. Alvin Lwin, Bill’s 26-year-old personal assistant, is everywhere at once and so is Amanda, Shoe’s 14-year-old daughter. Alvin lights the candles and one woman calls out, “I hope the cake is from Albertson’s. I love Albertson’s.”

If you want to understand Shoemaker, you have to keep looking at his eyes. They are almost an iridescent blue, and when he is happy they are capable of lighting the entire racetrack. Though he is immobilized, his eyes are not only a camera for what he sees but for what he feels.

Although the cake reads “Boss,” when we begin to sing “Happy birthday to you,” I follow the lead of the others and sing out “dear Shoe.” During this good-natured, casual ceremony. Shoe never takes his eyes from his impressive daughter, Amanda. She’s wearing tennis shorts and a white shirt and appears to possess two heads of sun-streaked, light brown hair. She has very long, very shapely legs. The closeness of father-daughter is palpable. While he is fastened to a wheelchair, she is in constant motion, laughing, talking, loving the birthday party. But they are joined in their acceptance and admiration for each other. Especially when she calls out “Happy birthday. Daddy,” his eyes grow luminous.

There’s lots of laughter because no one can blow out the candles; Shoe doesn’t even try. They are the sort you have to extinguish or die trying in the effort. Not a moment of self-pity or self-consciousness is in the air. Alvin douses the candles and we applaud. Shoe’s chair is so sensitive that you almost believe that Shoe himself is moving when he glances at me and my son and says, “Let’s cut the cake.” With apparent pleasure he adds, “I have an interview.”

We leave the chatter about cake for breakfast, someone’s impending bar mitzvah, the comments about how much dogs love cake, and head into the trailer on a wheelchair ramp. The desk is cluttered with boxes Filled with more cake; a bag of what appears to be gag gifts is on the floor. Walls are decorated with framed pictures of Diazo, the chestnut colt that Shoe trained who won the $500,000 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita on February 6, 1994.

“I’ve brought you a present,” I say. “A chopped-liver sandwich. It may not be as good as Temmie’s, but I hope you enjoy it.” I flash the sturdy sandwich. His eyes signal astonishment and recollection. “I’ll have it for breakfast,” he answers, and watches carefully as I place it on the table.

When you’re talking to Bill Shoemaker, you can’t ignore the fact that he’s immobilized; even though his hands are not restrained he can’t move them; he never shifts positions, only the chair. Simultaneously, his life force is so omnipresent that you half expect him to get up on his own and walk around.

“My doctors tell me that I’ll always be like this,” he admits when we ask about his health, “but I fooled them before and I will again.” He is referring to his two bad spills and broken bones in 1968 and 1969 from which he recovered completely. It’s possible that at present he gets from day to day by telling himself that he will not only confound his doctors but nature itself.

On the night of his accident, April 8, 1991, when he left the Sierra La Verne Country Club in San Dimas, California, after imbibing a few drinks, he got into his blue Ford Bronco, buckled his seat belt, and headed west, toward his home in San Marino. Traversing a stretch of freeway on Route 30 that was virtually deserted, he either took his eyes off the road or lost control of the car. In any case he plunged over a nine-foot shoulder and down 50 feet into a ravine. A kindly electronics engineer on the road below stopped to help. An ambulance arrived within minutes and took him to Glendora Community Hospital. Still, in a repeat of his birth, he was not expected to make it through the night. And for the second time, he lived. Call it magical thinking, call it denial or determination, but Shoemaker exemplifies what a Danish philosopher called “purity of heart.” Soren Kierkegaard said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

Shoemaker wills himself to live and work not only with purity of heart but in the most unsentimental way possible.

According to his narrative, he arises at about 4:00 a.m. every' morning and does some stanching exercises with Alvin. It takes 40 minutes to be bathed, dressed, put into his wheelchair, and then into the special van that takes him to the track, either Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, or Del Mar. He’s there by 5:00 a.m. and with the help of Paddy Gallagher he devises the special programs for each of the 25 horses that he trains: diet, exercise, health care. He uses the handicapped ramp and watches from above — at Del Mar his trailer has almost immediate access to the upper level from which he observes and makes his recommendations. At 10:00 a.m. when the training period is done, he goes home for breakfast. (In Del Mar he rents a house close to Lafitt Pincay’s and the ocean.)

Breakfast completed, he rests until he has to return to the track when, like any trainer, he instructs his jockeys before each race. Some of his buddies like Eddie Delahoussaye ride for him. Later when I speak to Eddie he tells me that he always learns from Bill, that Bill is a realist and knows the business so well that he never tears down a jockey. “He understands that I do my best, or if I take another mount |other than Bill’s] he understands that too. Bill never raises his voice. He never has to. I’ve known him 15 years. We’re good friends, hang out at Chasen’s, at Matteo’s, and even after the accident he’s the same. Everybody likes to work for Bill. He teaches you how to be patient. That’s the word for him, patient.”

We hear the loud honk of a horn. It’s Bruce Headly in his old pickup truck. Headly calls out, “Happy birthday. Master.” Bill is laughing. Headly adds, “You know why we call him Master? Because he makes them [horses] run faster.” With another flourish of his horn, Headly pulls away.

As if there has been no break in our conversation Bill offers, “There’s no such thing as a natural rider. You have to learn it, and have good hands, so the horse understands you. I had good hands. As for the owners who dropped me as a trainer after the accident, there’s nothing to say. I have enough owners and horses to keep me busy.” His calm, his lack of bitterness or reproach are almost unnerving.

I ask him what he does to keep from getting depressed, the devices he uses to stay on top of his game. He reflects but doesn’t answer. My son, sitting behind me, leans forward. “One of your best racing moments?”

Shoemaker doesn’t hesitate. “Ferdinand, in the Derby. It was maybe 20-some years since I’d had a winner there. I was 55, Charlie Wittingham, 73. We were the oldest jockey and trainer at the Derby. At the top of the stretch I went for it and won.”

My son remarks, “I was at off-track betting in Santa Barbara for that Derby. It was 1986 and I began screaming, ‘Shoe Shoe Shoe,’ and then everyone in the room was yelling, ‘Shoe Shoe Shoe,’ going crazy watching you. I’ll never forget it.” Bill blinks, his eyes the window to memory. He adds, “I enjoy training horses too. What would I do with myself if I stayed home?” Amanda comes in with a present that’s just arrived. She’s torn off some of the paper to reveal a framed photograph of one of the old buildings at the Del Mar track as it existed 30 years ago. “That’s beautiful,” he says. Then without our asking, he launches into his longest speech.

“Del Mar in the old days was a vacation racetrack. We all knew each other, all the jockeys, all the owners. The celebrities, like Crosby or Durante or Desi Arnaz, we were all down here to relax and have fun. We went to the beach together, partied together. I was a lot younger then; I could drink more. Now, a glass of wine with dinner, that’s it. But then we’d drink, we’d dance, we’d stay up all night and never feel it. Every night, someone else gave a party, and all the people came. There was no difference if you were a jockey, an owner, or a movie star. The nightlife was, you know, buddies.

“In the morning,” he continues, “I didn’t have to, but I loved to exercise the horses. I’d wear my swimming trunks, and I’d ride bareback, over the road to the beach [at 29th Street in Del Mar]. It was maybe 7:00 in the morning, and the water was cool. The horses liked that, that cool water, and we’d swim together, the horses and the jockeys and sometimes the owners, all in the water, laughing. Nobody cared if we won or lost, if we made money or not. We loved Del Mar. It was our favorite track, our favorite place to be together.

“Now, you know, it’s business. Cost of keeping and racing horses is high. There’s pressure to make expenses.” Training fees per horse are about $2000 a month, but from this sum, the horses must be fed, groomed, exercised, and examined by the vets. “So, it’s no more like it used to be,” he adds. “I still love Del Mar. I wouldn’t miss it for anything, but horseracing is big business.”

The phone rings. My son answers it, “Shoemaker’s trailer.” Alvin bounds in and puts on Shoe’s headphone. It’s done very smoothly. Shoe says, “I’ll get back to you,” always calm, never ruffled. Amanda, who has left while her father was talking about Del Mar, returns. “I’m going home, Daddy.” She picks up the bag of gifts on the floor. If he wanted to, Bill Shoemaker could make his exit now, but he prefers to stay. “I’ll see you home soon, darling,” he answers.

“About that question,” he continues, “about how I keep myself going, is my daughter. She lives with me and is entering the ninth grade. Her mother lives in Kentucky, but Amanda lives with me. I have bad days — who doesn’t? — but I think of her, I see her every day. She gives me something to look forward to. I want to watch her grow up. That’s what it is. Watch her grow up.”

My son asks softly, “And what would you like for your future as a trainer?”

“A Triple Crown winner [ Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, all in a six-week period]. The best colt I have is Diazo. When he won the Strub Stakes, Alvin pushed me right to the winner’s circle. But if I made the Triple Crown as a trainer, it would be my way to thank the fans who saw me ride and were there for me.” Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” For Bill Shoemaker, it may be the only thing left.

We’ve been with him almost an hour, so we stand up to leave.

Bill looks as if he had something further to say, but he pauses, hesitates, and then laughs, “Don’t forget my sandwich.” I place it on one of the poles of his chair.

I hand my son my hat and my purse and I walk around to the man celebrating his 63rd birthday. His skin is soft, smooth: baby face. I kiss him gently. Maybe I say, “Stay well,” maybe I say, “Happy birthday.” I don’t expect to cry but I do. Why the hell not? Bill Shoemaker can’t physically embrace me, but it feels as if he has. I walk down the ramp without looking back. My son strides ahead, graciously allowing me to pull myself together. We cross the revamped, prettified, spotless grounds, silent until we reach our car.

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