On May 3, 1986, 54-year-old Willie Shoemaker, aboard 18/1 shot Ferdinand, won the Kentucky Derby.

Before he rode Ferdinand in the Kentucky Derby in 1986, he pondered his age and decided, “If Jack Nicklaus can win the Masters at 46, I can win the Kentucky Derby at 54.” He did, becoming the oldest jockey to capture the Derby.

William Lee Shoemaker was born prematurely in 1931, on a Texas cotton farm. He weighed two pounds at birth, and was not expected to survive even that first night. He did survive but was always slight of stature as an adult at 4 feet 11 inches tall and 98 pounds.

In 1949, he first rode a horse professionally; he was 17. Shoemaker won his first professional race a month later. He was known around the tracks for his patience and great hands. He rarely used his whip and instead relied mostly on the bit and the harness.

In 1953, Shoe set a record for most wins in one year with 485. He rode in the Kentucky Derby 24 times and won it 4 times, aboard Swaps in 1955, Tomy Lee in 1959, Lucky Debonair in 1965 and Ferdinand in 1986. In his lifetime he won 8,833 of 40,350 races earning nearly $123 million in purses in his 40-year career.

What was the secret of his success?

“Temperament,” trainer Charlie Whittingham, who teamed with Shoemaker, once remarked. “It is essential to both the good horse and the good rider. Win or lose, in good health or injured, Shoe always has been even of temperament. His talent and his light weight have been assets, but above all his temperament enabled him to do so much over so long a period of time.”

In 1991, the year after Shoemaker retired from racing, a single car drunk-driving accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. Though he was unable to walk, he returned to training Thoroughbreds from his wheelchair. Shoemaker died in his sleep in 2003.

And what happened to Ferdinand?

The 1986 Derby Winner and 1987 Horse of the Year earned $3,777,978 during his racing career. He was sold to Japan as a stud but his offspring were not impressive. He passed through a series of disappointed breeders then disappeared. The presumption was that he was sent to a slaughterhouse in 2002.

A groom at the Japanese Arrow Stud called the former champion “the gentlest horse you could imagine. He’d come over when I called to him in the pasture. And anyone could have led him with just a halter on him. … He’d come over to me and press his head up against me. He was so sweet.”


Enjoy the 1986 Kentucky Derby!