When he crossed the finish line, when he was all alone, so gloriously alone under the wire, what was he thinking? As he stood in the stirrups and raised up his grizzled head and the sunlight danced around him like a halo, what was he thinking? Just then, with all America gasping in celebration of the grandeur and the justice of this, his most satisfying triumph, what was Bill Shoemaker thinking?
This: "Old Jack Nicklaus did it, and here I did it, too."
Golden moments for golden, olden men on the fullest stage their sports afford. Nicklaus, at 46, winning the Masters for the first time in 11 years; Shoemaker, at 54, winning the Kentucky Derby for the first time in 21. True living legends defying the odds, their ages and perhaps time itself.
Nicklaus, starting the final round with four strokes to make up and eight players to catch, shoots 65 and scorches the competition with an eagle on 15 and a birdie on 17; Shoemaker, pinned against the rail and dead last at the half with 15 horses to catch, picks his way through traffic and cuts inside at the top of the stretch -- a sudden move, a young man's move -- knifing through an opening in a hedge of horses with the precision of a diamond cutter, and never looks back.
How do you measure the width of a man's will if not in the crucible of doom? How stunning and wondrous to see men, admittedly past their prime, reach back and by the sheer strength of their character recapture, however briefly, the summit that was theirs and theirs alone. Moments like this are not just courageous and inspirational, they are the lights that mark our way and point us toward the path to excellence.
The last time Shoe won here was in 1965, aboard Lucky Debonair. Think of it, 21 years, a generation has grown up since then. The last time Shoe was in the money here was 1975. In three rides in the 1980s he finished 15th, 8th and 9th. At what point does a slump deepen into a ravine? "I never thought I was ever done," Shoe said directly. But he had reason to doubt that he would ever win the Derby or any other Triple Crown classic again. "I thought about it a lot," he said, smiling that tight, thin smile of his. "Earlier this year I thought I might have only one more chance to win the Derby, and this might be it."
He would come to the Derby with Ferdinand, a big, strong chestnut colt, a son of Nijinsky II and a grandson of Northern Dancer. He would come to ride for 73-year-old Charlie Whittingham, as venerable and accomplished a trainer as Shoe was a jockey. Whittingham had won more stakes races than any other trainer ever, but hadn't won the Kentucky Derby. The last time Whittingham brought a horse to this race was in 1960. Divine Comedy finished ninth, and Whittingham walked away promising he wouldn't be back until he had a horse he thought could win. Ferdinand, he thought, was such a horse, and he said so. "Last summer at Del Mar," Shoemaker recalled, "Charlie showed me this 2-year-old. He said, 'Here's the one I'm gonna save for you. We might have some fun with this one.' "
And so they came here, the 54-year-old jockey, the winningest jockey of all time, and the 73-year-old trainer, the winningest trainer of all time -- The Sunshine Boys -- pinning their hopes on a bull of a colt with a pedigree they could believe in. Not many agreed with them. If he was any choice at all Ferdinand was a sentimental choice. Snow Chief and Badger Land were far and away the people's favorites. That Ferdinand paid $37.40 for $2 tells you how many players were willing to put their money where their hearts might have been. So on any other day, at any other race, with any other rider, the stories would have told of Ferdinand's plucky charge and Whittingham's long wait.
But this Derby belongs to the little man who won here three times before, but never as sweetly as this, who in 1957 aboard Gallant Man stood tall in the saddle here, but unfortunately too soon -- mistaking the 1/16th pole for the finish and handing the Derby to Bill Hartack and Iron Liege. For good times and bad this Derby belonged to one man, one so slight and delicate that even now with the steel gray in his hair looks as if he should be on top of a wedding cake, the greatest rider of his time: If The Shoe wins, write it.
He is truly and duly celebrated, and the move he made -- the O.J. Simpson move, cutting back against the grain -- was a move of genius, the certification of a champion. "I had a chance of going around or going through," Shoemaker calmly explained. "I said I'd go through." There wasn't much time to think about it, time only to see the window and lunge for it. "One, two, three -- boom!" Shoemaker said.
One, two, three -- boom!
There were tears in his eyes, Bill Shoemaker admitted, when he came back to the winner's circle, more emotion than he ever could recall having at any of his 8,537 victories. None of them had been like this, he said, not ever. "I'm in the twilight of my career," he explained, smiling ever so slightly. And suddenly, from nowhere it seemed, came a warm, gentle breeze of nostalgia and spirit, the kind that settles on roses and protects their delicate bloom against the scourge of time.