Bill Shoemaker

He stood less than five feet tall, small even for a jockey. But that served as the great irony in the career of this Thoroughbred racing icon, for he has reigned as a giant in the sport he dominated for decades. Even years after his retirement and passing, the name Bill Shoemaker is synonymous with the sport of kings.

Simply put, he is widely considered to be the greatest rider in history.

That journey began in Fabens, Texas. Born in 1931, Shoemaker and his family eventually moved to Southern California. The location was fitting, for it would serve as Shoemaker's domain in his professional life for years to come.

Though Shoe's career is strongly associated with the Southland, he actually debuted up in Northern California in 1949. The site was Bay Meadows, and it was not long before Shoemaker rode his first winner. That was the first of many milestones awaiting this gifted rider, with the next coming in 1950.

The site was Del Mar, and Shoemaker wasted no time in collecting his first of dozens of riding titles. He did not win this one outright, however. Rather, he shared it with John Longden, one of the masters of the riding craft. It was not so much a changing of the guard as it was a preview of things to come. Longden still had years of riding to do, but Shoemaker certainly represented the new generation. Indeed, his career would share another link with Longden much later on.

Following that first riding title, Shoemaker engineered an era of dominance never before seen in Thoroughbred racing. It also has not been seen since.

In a class of his own in Southern California, Shoemaker transformed into a virtually unbeatable figure. From 1952 to 1968, no rider captured a Santa Anita riding title but him. Seventeen straight seasons. It is one of the sport's truly remarkable feats, and one that will never be broken. That skill carried over to Hollywood Park, where Shoemaker swept titles for several years in succession during the 1950s and 1960s.

And Del Mar? Shoemaker made the seaside track his personal playground, winning seven consecutive riding titles in the 1950s. The 1954 session was the best. It could be called the Summer of Shoemaker, for he racked up an amazing ninety-four wins to take the championship. With the exception of Laffit Pincay, Jr., who won eighty-six races at Del Mar one year, no rider has ever come remotely close to equaling Shoemaker's total, much less eclipsing it.

Already in the Hall of Fame in his late twenties, Shoemaker continued to raise his stature. Though based in Southern California, he could be found in a big race back East. Over the course of his career, Shoemaker piloted countless good horses, many of whom were later inducted into the Hall of Fame. Gallant Man, Round Table, Iron Liege, Tim Tam, Damascus, Native Diver, these are just a few of the equine stars Shoemaker teamed up with. If a big race was being run, be it the East or West, there was a good chance Shoemaker might be there.

But the horse Shoemaker is most closely aligned with, at least for the first half of his career, was Swaps. Teaming up with the chestnut California-bred, Shoemaker rode him to his first of four Kentucky Derby wins. But the 1956 campaign at Hollywood Park was their magnum opus. Except for a narrow loss, Shoemaker and Swaps were easily the stars of the meet, with the Texan guiding the talented horse to multiple stakes wins over the course of two months. Saddled with 130 pounds several times, Swaps either equaled or set new track or world records throughout the meet. It truly stands out as one of the best showcases of a handicap horse in racing history, and the duo certainly made their mark in the area for their achievements. For years, a statue of Swaps with Shoemaker aboard was featured at Hollywood Park, reminding those who watched them of the greatness they witnessed, and giving subsequent generations a glimpse of the two legends when they teamed up.

As the 1950s made way for the 1960s, Shoemaker stayed in the upper echelon of jockeys. Still bringing in riding titles and riding the aforementioned legends, he overcame injuries late in that decade to keep riding. He also kept winning big races, particularly those in the Triple Crown series. The Triple Crown itself was about the only prize Shoemaker did not capture in his illustrious career, but he came up big in all three races more than once. He went on to win four Kentucky Derbies, three renewals of the Preakness Stakes, and five Belmont Stakes.