Face to Face With Your Hero

(Here’s another story that I wrote years ago. I hope you enjoy it – Joell)

On a perfect Indian summer morning, I walked to the corner coffee shop for my morning joe before a 9:00 am lesson. My eyes glanced over the headlines of several newspapers sporting more ridiculous news of local political scandals and horrific information about the continuing struggles in the Middle East. Somehow my eye caught the sub-headline that announced the quiet death of a hero and friend. My heart broke wide open.

I read the story while waiting in line for coffee with my eyes full of tears. I needed to run away, get to my car and drive, and cry. Bill Shoemaker is dead.

The article said that Bill had died of natural causes at the appropriate age of 72. The article also told the story that Bill had been a quadriplegic for the last 12 years following an auto accident. Also cited were the amazing numbers; that Bill had been born 2 1/2 lbs. That he grew to a height of 4’10”, had won an amazing 8,833 races and over $125 million dollars for his owners. That he is survived by his only daughter Amanda.

But here are some things that the article didn’t say, didn’t know and needs to be known.

For the record, Bill Shoemaker was my hero. I grew up watching him ride races on television. He rode with the Gods named Angel Cordero, Bill Hartack and Eddie D. He was my favorite until Steve Cauthen arrived on the scene with his 17 year old baby face and unbelievable talent. But Steve faded, the victim of a 5’5” frame and Bill rode on. Bill threaded the needle on a huge Ferdinand to win the Breeder’s Cup Classic for Charlie Whittingham. Bill piloted Spectacular Bid to 11 victories out of 12 rides. Bill hand rode horses to the wire, head down, small arms pumping and accepted victory with his shy smile that gave credit to the beast and its trainer.

In 1997, I got the chance to meet Bill. Not just meet, to hang out with Bill, to honor him among his peers. I was the Special Events Planner for Golden Gate Fields racetrack. Having just recently given up on the notion of being a jockey myself, I put my heart and soul into promoting racing to the general public for a living. With the help of our Marketing Director, I contacted the Shoemaker Foundation and we began to plan a benefit dinner and dance at Golden Gate Fields as a fundraiser for Bill’s charity Foundation. Bill’s first win of his career was at Golden Gate, so I thought that this might be a perfect venue to honor him.

Moreover, Bill had just that month sent up a horse to run in the California Derby, our track’s signature race. Bill became the only person to win the California Derby as a trainer and a jockey.

I met extensively on the morning of the event with Rodney Pitts, executive director of the Shoemaker Foundation and with Chris Lincoln of ESPN to discuss details of how to get Bill and his special sip-and-puff wheelchair from the airport to the Turf Club. It was decided that I should go to the airport to meet Bill. 

Both Rodney and Chris were long-time friends of Bill and all of them were big fans of a good joke. The boys decided that we would make a huge sign that said “Bill Shoemaker” and that I should parade around the airport lobby and pass him a couple of times. As if I didn’t recognize his famous face or his tiny frame in the huge wheelchair.

I knew I couldn’t do it. I was too nervous and too excited to be in his presence. So I left the sign in the van and trotted to the airline gate with my heart pounding.

Bill and his longtime assistant and friend, Wendy SooHoo were the last off of the plane. Bill’s chair had to be secured to the floor of the plane and it took a bit of maneuvering to extricate him from his bindings. Bill looked tired, but game as I approached.

For whatever reason, I have always resorted to wise cracks when nervous, and this may be one of the best/worst wisecracks of my professional career:

“Well Mr. Shoemaker, I’m Joell with Golden Gate Fields. I can’t believe that you sent a horse up to our fair track to steal the biggest race of our season and don’t show up for the race, but if we throw a dinner-dance for you, you manage to come. I didn’t realize you were that fond of dancing.”

I STILL can’t believe I said that. Bill processed my comment for a second or two, glanced up at me with clear blue eyes and said

“Kid, you get the first dance.”

We spent the trip from the airport to the track chatting. I told him that an old riding buddy of his is my great uncle and we laughed and exchanged stories of riding and racing. Bill was very tired and uncomfortable from the trip, but he never complained and was charming, graceful and kind to me.

I remember him as a little bit shy, mostly quiet and always the gentleman. Except of course, when he had the chance to crack a joke, most of them quite blue. He was quick with a smile and laugh.

Bill started the Shoemaker Foundation to assist families in the racing industry with financial support, counseling and resources when affected by catastrophic illness or injury. As you can imagine, working around racehorses is very dangerous and some of the injuries are horrific.

So often when you meet your hero, you find them to be merely human or worse. This was not the case with Mr. Shoemaker. The hero of my childhood was a true giant of a human being. My life is honestly better for having admired and known him. I hope he is riding Ferdinand across the finish line again and again somewhere in heaven.2CD03985-B931-4FAD-96BD-B491DCACE3C8.jpg

One thought on “Face to Face With Your Hero

  1. OH, Joell, not only did this bring a smile to my face it brought tears of joy as well. Billy Shoemaker was my Mom's FAVORITE jockies. If there is a heaven, I know they are sitting down discussing all of the inns and outs of todays 'modern breeding' and how it is going to undo the race industry! They were true believers in 'bone' and 'stamina' and the ability to let the horse grow and learn at it's own pace! Anyway, thank you, Joell, brought back a flood of memories and tears of joy. Now if the industry could just get back to where it went wrong and start over! :)

Leave a Reply