1970: Bill Shoemaker's Crowning Achievement
A comprehensive review of Bill Shoemaker's career will show how dominant a force he was in Southern California racing. But for all his successes at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, it can be said that Del Mar was especially kind to the legendary rider.
Take the 1949 season, for example. With fifty-two wins to his name during the entire summer meet, Shoemaker made history as he became the first apprentice jockey to claim the track riding title. It would be the first of a record seven riding crowns at the venue for Shoemaker, all of them coming before Del Mar hosted fall racing on a yearly basis (Rafael Bejarano is the only jockey to equal him in that category).
But that was just the beginning. Shoemaker finished the 1950 Del Mar meet tied with the legendary Johnny Longden for the riding title. It was a saga of youth and experience going head to head, and while Longden would ride well into the 1960s, it was a foreshadowing of what the sport would see from the young man from Fabens, Texas.
Then came 1954. Del Mar transformed into Shoemaker's personal playground. When the circuit packed up and headed out of town at meet's end, Shoemaker was again the top jockey. He also set a new standard for wins at a single meet with an astonishing ninety-four (and he broke his own record in doing so). As of the summer of 2020, no one has topped that total.
Clearly, Shoemaker shined for many a summer by the beach, but his greatest accomplishment is none of those listed above. They are impressive, to be sure, but one moment surpasses them all. And it involved none other than Johnny Longden.
Back in 1956, Longden won his 4,830th career race, the most of any rider in the world. Longden took over the record established by Sir Gordon Richards, and the historic occasion came on Labor Day at Del Mar. The jockey nicknamed "The Pumper" finished his career nearly ten years later with 6,032 wins, capping off a storied career with his wildly popular triumph aboard George Royal in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano.
After Longden retired, Shoemaker kept making visits to the winners' circle, gradually adding to his win count before he came within striking distance of Longden's mark. As the 1970 Del Mar meet reached its conclusion, Shoemaker was in line to overtake the record outright. And he had a shot to do so on Labor Day, the same holiday that Longden leapfrogged Richards.
Shoemaker went into the September 7 card tied with Longden, his latest victory coming the Saturday before. He had plenty of chances to get into the win column with seven mounts on the day. His first try came in the second race, which resulted in a third aboard Captivated II. Next up for Shoemaker came the fourth race, a six furlong allowance. He had the assignment on trainer Ron McAnally's Dares J, a two-year-old chestnut filly by Stevward who was owned by Green Thumb Farm. The morning line favorite at 5-2, bettors believed Dares J would take Shoemaker straight to the record, setting her at just over even money.
She took Shoe to the front early in the three-quarter mile sprint on the main track. They enjoyed a comfortable lead as Dares J ran powerfully down the backstretch and into the far turn. Their closest pursuer a horse named Warm Response, who was a couple lengths back in second. People in the grandstand watched the action intently, no doubt wondering whether the thirty-nine year old Shoemaker would have his date with destiny in less than one minute.
The race moved swiftly, its opening fractions :21 4/5 and :44 4/5 after a half-mile. As Shoemaker and Dares J arrived at the top of the stretch, the crowd became louder. People in the stands began jumping up and down. Dares J ran on the inside, still maintaining a healthy advantage to Warm Response. No one was making any headway as the seconds ticked off.
Five furlongs went by in :57 2/5. Victory was coming closer to Shoemaker and Dares J with every stride. She looked relaxed as she traversed the final stretch while the fans roared their approval. They saw victory was assured.
Dares J crossed the wire in 1:10 3/5, and Shoemaker crossed into new territory with his 6,033rd win. After dozens of riding titles, a Hall of Fame induction, and countless stakes wins, Shoemaker had captured the biggest win of his incomparable career.
Shoemaker waved to the cheering crowd as he and Dares J made that triumphant walk to the winners' circle. A trophy commemmorating the new record along with a dignified painting of Shoemaker was waiting for him there, and so was none other than Longden, who warmly congratulated his friend in a tremendous display of class and sportsmanship. The fans continued paying homage to Shoemaker, who had a blanket of white carnations put over him. He and Longden shook hands, which brought back memories of a photo of the two shaking hands while donned in jockey silks years earlier.
Longden's remarks in the winners' circle paid tribute to Shoemaker. "This is a great day for Bill," he said. "I held the world's record for riding the most winners for fourteen years. It took a good man to set that record, and it took a damned good man to break it today." Shoemaker expressed his gratitude and respect to Longden in his interview. "I knew that my friend, John Longden, was rooting for me. Without his help, I'd never have been here today. I'm glad that I won it in Longden's style--in front all the way."
Longden made comment to the effect that Shoe's record would last far longer than his own. He turned out to be exactly right on that. Shoemaker rode until 1990, picking up thousands more victories before retiring with 8,833 wins, far more than anyone else in racing history. He held the record for twenty-nine years, and like Longden before him, was on hand to see it overtaken by another friend and jockey in December 1999: Laffit Pincay, Jr. In the years since, only Russell Baze can say that he has more victories than the iconic rider.
Shoemaker's win came just days after the fourteen year anniversary of Longden capturing the record. And it came on Labor Day like Longden's hand. And it came twenty years after they shared the 1950 Del Mar riding title. Much like Swaps and Nashua, Affirmed and Alydar, and Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, Bill Shoemaker and Johnny Longden have a link that is impossible to break. They were friends, they were opponents. And they are two of the very best of all time.
But going by Shoemaker's comments following that monumental victory, it was clear there was a student-teacher dynamic between himself and Longden. Shoemaker learned much from the 1943 Triple Crown winner, and those lessons took him to a place only reserved for the all-time greats.
Shoemaker won Del Mar's riding title in 1970, his last at the seaside track. Fittingly, it came the exact same season he scored the biggest victory of his career. Once more, Del Mar had been good to the brilliant and popular Texan.
A truly humble man, Bill Shoemaker had a gift with horses. That gift was in full evidence on September 7, 1970. It was a day that saw a passing of the torch between two legendary riders, and it was the day more than 20,000 fans came to Del Mar and saw the man widely regarded as the best of all time capture his crowning achievement.
2020 Del Mar Media Guide, pgs. 12, 16
Hebert, Bob. "Shoe Set Record, Says It's His Biggest Thrill." Los Angeles Times, September 8, 1970, Part III, pgs. 1, 8
Unknown writer. "Shoemaker Has 7 Mounts For Record Try." Los Angeles Times, September 7, 1970, Part III, p. 8