1950-1967: Shoemaker's Sweet Seventeen
Streaks play a dual role of being inevitable and fascinating in the world of sports. For the athlete building a streak, it is the product of hard work, passion, and a drive to succeed.
To the friends, family, and fans of that athlete, a sense of pride, admiration, and living vicariously exists. We watch the journey unfold, gaining inspiration to pursue our own dreams. The longer the streak continues, the more sublime it becomes. Building like a crescendo, the saga one day attains the realm of legend long after it has finally been halted. All streaks reach the latter fate, but some live on for years, maybe even decades. Those few, while very real, eventually become touched by almost mythical status, probably because they look unbreakable.
Baseball fans might point to Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak as something along that category. Those who study basketball could cite the 33 consecutive games won by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers as one of the premier records that may never be eclipsed. A strong possibility exists that no hockey club other than the Montreal Canadiens will make ten straight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals (taking six of them).
Thoroughbred racing possesses laudable streaks, too. Citation once held the record of sixteen successive wins, which was later matched by Cigar and then eclipsed outright by Zenyatta when she made it to nineteen. Kelso took home Horse of the Year honors five times between 1960 and 1964, with Forego following suit from 1972 to 1974 while being named Top Older Male from 1974 to 1977.
But racing's greatest streak came from a jockey, considered by many to be the best who ever lived. And the streak he crafted, for all intents and purposes, is truly unbreakable.
For Bill Shoemaker, both 1950 and 1951 were landmark years for him professionally. He began riding the previous season, starting at Bay Meadows in Northern California. After winning his first Hollywood Park riding title at the 1950 spring meet, he battled with veteran rider Johnny Longden for supremacy at Del Mar the following summer. The end result was a draw, with the youthful Shoemaker and the experienced Longden (by now a Triple Crown winner) each racking up 60 wins at the meet. Longden would ride for another sixteen years, eventually taking over the title of world's winningest jockey from England's Sir Gordon Richards in 1956, but the tie shared between he and Shoemaker at Del Mar signaled the latter's arrival as a force in Thoroughbred racing.
Fast forward to Santa Anita. Shoemaker, now in line to complete the sweep of season titles at the big three racetracks (Longden was the only jockey to top the standings at Santa Anita Hollywood Park and Del Mar back in those days). Fans saw Shoemaker win throughout the meeting, and the end result was 48 wins and the status of leading rider at Arcadia. Not only that, but Shoe was voted the second recipient of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, which salutes a jockey for both personal and professional decorum.
Shoemaker achieved this success before even turning twenty years of age, his whole career still ahead of him. But in the grand scheme of things, what happened in that brief period of his career was a forshadowing of what was to come.
the rest of 1951 saw the Texan repeat as Hollywood Park and Del Mar riding champion, and that was the case at the end of the 1951-52 Santa Anita session. Fans of Shoemaker's enjoyed the run of titles (along with Shoemaker himself, of course), and they got used to it as the decade went on.
No one in the jockey colony could dethrone Shoemaker at Del Mar unti 1955. Outside of Longden in 1952, Shoemaker finished first at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers every year until 1967, giving him an astonishing eighteen titles since 1950 and fifteen straight going back to 1953. Needless to say, no one came close to even approaching that streak for the rest of Hollywood Park's existence.
But Shoemaker found a way to top himself. As he left Del Mar and Hollywood Park with riding honors year after year, he was building his legend at Santa Anita as well. Every year of the 1950s saw the diminutive jockey ranked number one in Arcadia, averaging 67 wins between the 1950-51 and 1959-60 meetings. This was more than race riding. This was pure dominance.
That carried over to almost the entire 1960's. Horses like Swaps, Round Table, and Native Diver were all a part of those two decades and that streak, but Shoemaker was obviously the constant through it all. He maintained an iron grip on Santa Anita, taking the majority of the winter/spring meets in the 1960's. Oddly enough, the highest amount of wins throughout the streak came in the 1966-67 session, which marked the final time Shoemaker left the track as its leading rider. He came up with 81 victories in that session, and averaged 69 for the remaining seven years of his tenure as top man in Arcadia.
Ironically, Shoemaker's best Santa Anita season, at least in terms of visits to the winner's circle, did not come during that almost twenty year period. Finishing second to Laffit Pincay, Jr. at the 1974-1975 campaign, Shoe put together 84 victories, narrowly beating his old mark from eight years earlier.
Well over fifty years have passed since Shoemaker's remarkable dominance at Santa Anita reached its zenith. Of all the jockeys to succeed him as riding champion there, only Laffit Pincay came remotely near his overall number of championships with 13. But they were not achieved consecutively. This is in no way a knock on Pincay, whose record is brilliant and impreesive (and it should be noted he put together an impressive six straight titles at the Great Race Place during his career), but there is just a certain aura about what Shoemaker accomplished.
Perhaps it is because no one saw it happen before. And perhaps it is because no one has seen it since. And perhaps it is due to the fact that Shoemaker's legend only grew after that. Remember, that streak happened in the first half of Shoe's career. He would go on to supersede Longden as the all time winningest rider in 1970, holding it until almost the end of the century. Retirement did not come until 1990, when he finished with 8,833 wins, highlighted by myriad stakes wins, including several associated with the Triple Crown. Only two jockeys have since totaled more victories than Shoe: Pincay and Russell Baze. All of that has only enhanced the mystique of Shoemaker and what he achieved.
You cannot talk about Southern California racing without Bill Shoemaker being involved. He is forever connected to the region, to Del Mar, to Hollywood Park. And although he ultimately won eleven Big 'Caps and thousands of races there, that unparalleled standard of seventeen riding crowns in a row ensured that Shoemaker's legend will forever roam Santa Anita.
Sources: Del Mar 2019 Media Guide, page 8.
Hollywood Park 2012 Media Guide, pages 429-430.
Santa Anita 2019-20 Winter Media Guide, page 114.