1978 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"You don't get anything free in life; you get out only what you put in."
When Willie Shoemaker was born in 1931, in Fabens, Texas, he was premature and weighed less than three pounds. The doctor predicted he would not last the night, but Shoemaker's grandmother rigged a crude incubator from a shoe box and a warm oven, which saved his life. Shoemaker was the son of a cotton-mill worker and handyman. When he was four, his parents separated, and young Shoemaker went to live with his grandfather on a cattle and sheep ranch near Abilene. There, at the age of seven, he rode his first pony.
Three years later, Shoemaker moved to California to live with his father. Despite his size, he excelled in high school athletics, particularly boxing and wrestling, and won a Los Angeles Golden Gloves championship. When he was 14, he got a job at the Suzy Q ranch. He loved working with the horses so much that he would be on the job at 5:00 a.m., attend school, and then rush back when classes were over. A year later, in his junior year, he dropped out of school to spend all of his time at the ranch.
After deciding to become a jockey, he moved to Santa Anita and found work exercising race horses. In 1949, at the age of 17, Shoemaker rode in his first race. He finished fifth, but a month later he had his first win. He quickly became a riding sensation, with 219 wins in his first year. "From the very beginning, I knew I had the knack," he said. "I had a good rapport with the animals, and they responded well to me." Willie Shoemaker rode many of the top horses in the history of racing and was the world's "winningest" jockey with more than 8,700 wins. In 1986, Shoemaker, at the age of 54, won the Kentucky Derby for the fourth time. The spectacular come-from-behind ride was his eleventh Triple Crown victory. "Winning the Derby on Ferdinand was one of the biggest highlights of my career," he said.
In 1991, Shoemaker was in a serious car accident that left him confined to a wheelchair. In addition to trying to get his body back in shape with strenuous daily exercise, Shoemaker worked as a horse trainer.
Throughout his career, Shoemaker took time to work with disadvantaged and disabled children. He spent many hours showing the joys of riding to youngsters with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and other debilitating diseases. Though he never finished high school, Shoemaker told young people, "Finishing school and getting a good education is the most important thing you can do."* Deceased