1990: The Legend's Last Ride
The phrase, "end of an era," has been used countless times in history. It is also a saying that rang true for the sport of Thoroughbred racing on February 3, 1990.
On that winter afternoon, Bill Shoemaker, one of the true giants of the turf and the man who is arguably the great jockey of all time, retired after more than forty years in the saddle.
The site was Santa Anita, the track where he dominated for so many years. At one point, Shoemaker won an unprecdented seventeen consecutive riding titles at the Arcadia venue (which to this day has not been equaled). It only seemed fitting that the rider who began his career in California back in 1949 would close it at the state where he achieved so much success.
As expected, Shoemaker's last race brought an enormous level of attention. His final career start was dubbed "The Legend's Last Ride," and that made the cover of the day's Santa Anita program as well as a national television broadcast. The program also featured a retrospective of Shoemaker's career as well as quotes from media and racing personalities paying tribute to him. The man who thousands had grown up watching was getting a grand salute as he prepared to hang up his tack. It only demonstrated what Shoemaker meant to racing and to the people in it. A true gentleman rider, he had long earned the respect from his peers and fans for his riding and his character. That respect was shown in spades at Santa Anita.
The obvious question going into the race was whether Shoemaker would go out a winner. His most recent victory came at Gulfstream Park about two weeks earlier (interestingly, it could be said he went full circle a few days before then, for he won another race at Bay Meadows). The fact his career was about to finish was already one of the biggest moments in racing history. If Shoemaker could get to the winner's circle one more time, it would be one of the true fairytale endings in sports.
"The Legend's Last Ride" was the fifth race of the program, a one mile event on the turf course with an added purse of $100,000. But first, Shoemaker delivered an emotional speech in the winner's circle, his fellow jockeys standing behind him. With over 60,000 in attendance, the Hall of Famer delivered a heartfelt and tearful thanks to the riders, the emotion surrounding him. Applause followed at that moment, just as it had when he was given a boost on his horse in the walking ring.
Patchy Groundfog had the distinction of being the final mount of Shoemaker's iconic career, and was made the post-time favorite. Shoemaker was of course the sentimental favorite, and everyone hoped for one more win.
For the 40,350th time, Shoemaker was in the saddle, going into the starting gate with Patchy Groundfog, winner of the Grade III San Francisco Mile Handicap in 1989 and second in the Grade III San Gabriel Handicap a few weeks earlier. Scores of people surrounded the walking ring as Shoemaker mounted, knowing the gravity of the event and that they would never see one of the greatest jockeys of all time compete again.
Set as the 2-1 favorite on the program, Patchy Groundfog was part of a coupled entry with Ofanto. Both were trained by Julio Canani, but Ofanto scratched before the race. Joining Shoemaker in the starting gate were riders he had battled on track for years: Eddie Delahoussaye, Gary Stevens, Fernando Toro, and Patrick Valenzuela, among others. Every one of them respected Shoemaker as a rider and as a human being. He was their friend-and for the final time-a fellow competitor.
With thousands of fans in the grandstand and the infield watching, the field loaded into the starting gate. A truly remarkable career had one mile to go.
Shoemaker and Patchy Groundfog had a chance as the field reached the top of the stretch. Everyone wondered if the legend could add one more win to his record. There was hope he could with each stride. Even Trevor Denman, who was then Santa Anita's track announcer, urged Shoemaker over the public address system, marking one of the few times Denman has not been impartial calling a race (Denman has talked about this more than once). That alone speaks volumes about Shoemaker.
Then, for the slightest of moments, Shoemaker again found the front, with Patchy Groundfog getting the lead to the roar of the crowd. But just as quickly, they were overtaken. Exemplary Leader closed from off the pace to pull the upset as Patchy Groundfog just missed out on a top three finish, coming in fourth.
He may not have won the race, but Shoemaker was no loser. As he and Patchy Groundfog came back to the main stretch after slowing down, they were met with applause, everyone paying homage to a great man many of them had grown up with. They saw him ride Swaps, Lucky Debonair, Native Diver, Cougar II, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Ferdinand, and countless other horses. He rode champions, he rode maidens, and he owned an abundance of records in both the Golden State as well as the sport in general.
Bill Shoemaker was California racing. Bill Shoemaker was Thoroughbred racing.
He would not leave entirely; a training career was in the works, and he went on to saddle winners in that line of work as well. But in the years since his retirement, Shoemaker's aura has only grown. The all-time winningest rider going into his last start, only Laffit Pincay, Jr. and Russell Baze have passed him since. In addition, Shoemaker still ranks in the top three in overall races won at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar, and is Santa Anita's leader in stakes victories while still second in that same category at Hollywood Park.
As for riding titles, no one has surpassed Shoemaker at Santa Anita's winter/spring meet, and no one ever topped him at Hollywood Park, even when autumn racing was added in 1981. As for Del Mar, only Rafael Bejarano has equaled Shoemaker's seven riding titles.
Those records say a lot about this giant of Thoroughbred racing. A winner of several Triple Crown races, including four Kentucky Derbies, eleven Santa Anita Handicaps (an all-time record), an Eclipse Award winner, Breeders' Cup Classic winner, recipient of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, 8,833 career wins, 1,009 stakes victories, and a plethora of additional accolades, no one has had a career like the man from Fabens, Texas.
The Legend's Last Ride came on February 3, 1990, but the legend of Bill Shoemaker lives on.