Derby Museum showcases jockey great Bill Shoemaker

Just a short stroll from the famous track at Churchill Downs,
where he rode to four victories in the Kentucky Derby, some of Bill
Shoemaker’s most treasured items are on display for racing fans
making a pilgrimage to the famous racetrack.

The special exhibit – titled “Shoemaker: Start to Finish” –
opened Monday at the Kentucky Derby Museum and carries visitors
down memory lane, spanning the 40-plus-year career of a pint-sized
man who became a giant in thoroughbred racing history.

Visitors stroll past glass cases filled with trophies,
scrapbooks and riding gear worn by the late Shoemaker, who rode in
more than 40,000 races and won 8,833 of them in a Hall of Fame
career. Photos ringing the exhibit chronicle his achievements.

One photo shows an exuberant Shoemaker after he won the 1986
Derby aboard Ferdinand. The triumph made Shoemaker the oldest
jockey, at age 54, to win the Run for the Roses. The garland of
roses is draped around his shoulders, his right fist pumped in
triumph.

The Derby Museum, situated just off Gate 1 at Churchill,
received the nearly 550-piece collection from Shoemaker’s daughter,
Amanda Teal. It’s the first time most of the pieces have been put
on public display.

The exhibit comes as Derby fever nears a crescendo in this
charming city by the Ohio River, which spends three weeks
celebrating a two-minute horse race, and where race horses, and
their jockeys, are seen as prime athletes. This year’s Derby is May
7.

“I am beyond excited to see it all come together,” Teal said in
emailed comments. “He was an extraordinary father, athlete and
person. I’m grateful to have his legacy celebrated and preserved
for all racing fans.”

Shoemaker died in 2003 at the age of 72. He had been paralyzed
from the neck down since a car crash in 1991.

The exhibit has three themes – Shoemaker’s family life, racing
career and celebrity status. Shoemaker gained prominence in the
1950s and 1960s, when thoroughbred racing was a leading spectator
sport. As a result, he was in demand by advertisers.

One glass case showcases a dapper white suit similar to the one
he wore in an American Express ad featuring Shoemaker and Wilt
Chamberlain. At 4-foot-11, Shoemaker barely reached the waist of
the basketball great.

Shoemaker’s stature as a pitchman showed that his broad appeal
extended beyond racetracks, a point Derby Museum curator Chris
Goodlett hopes to convey in the exhibit.

”I hope people really get a sense of how important he was by
also seeing that celebrity,” he said.

Another objective, he said, is to offer some insights into the
physical demands of being a jockey – “how amazing they are
athletically as small persons controlling a large animal.”

Shoemaker was at the top of his trade for decades. He had 26
mounts in the Kentucky Derby, and won the first leg of the Triple
Crown in 1955, 1959, 1965 and finally in 1986, which his daughter
said was a special achievement.

“I think the fact that he was able to win it in the twilight of
his career, and share the victory with his longtime friend (and
trainer) Charlie Whittingham, made it particularly special,” Teal
said.

Teal remembers watching the 1986 race as a 6-year-old in her
living room, jumping up and down and screaming. She still remembers
the race in detail as her father navigated a ride considered one of
the greatest ever.

“When he anticipated that hole opening, dropped in toward the
rail and took the lead down the stretch, (it) was one of the most
exciting moments of my life,” she said.

The exhibit includes video footage from each of his Derby wins.
It also shows one of his most agonizing losses.

Visitors can see video of the 1957 Derby, when Shoemaker
misjudged the finish line and stood up at the 16th pole while
aboard Gallant Man. He sat back down immediately but Iron Liege won
by a nose.

Shoemaker rode much of his career on Southern California’s
competitive circuit. He was the first jockey to reach $100 million
in career earnings. After retiring as a jockey, he worked as a
trainer from 1990-97.

The exhibit, which runs through this Dec. 31, is on the second
floor of the museum, where every day seems like Derby Day. Visitors
relive past races through videos and memorabilia that also capture
the pageantry. The museum also arranges for guided walking tours of
Churchill Downs.

Teal, who lives in San Francisco, plans to visit the museum with
her husband. She’ll see scrapbooks chronicling some of her father’s
big victories. Other pages show a more personal side. There’s a
party invitation signed by friends after his 1986 Derby triumph.
Another scrapbook page features a button from Teal that says: “My
Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

Goodlett said the scrapbooks are meant to give people a glimpse
into what Shoemaker was like ”as a man, not just as an
athlete.”

If You Go …

KENTUCKY DERBY MUSEUM: 704 Central Ave., Louisville, Ky.;
http://www.derbymuseum.org or 502-637-7097. Adults, $13; age 55 and
over, $12; age 13-18, $11; age 5-12, $5; under 5, free. March
15-Nov. 30, open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m.-5
p.m. Open at 8 a.m. Sunday after Derby. Dec. 1-March 14, open
Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

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