Good Company To Be Mentioned

by Ed Meyer

posted on January 4, 2009 in General Discussion | No Comments >>

It’s amazing how much Rafael Bejarano has accomplished during such a short period in Southern California.

When was the last time a young jock arrived in the Southland and immediately stole the spotlight as Bejarano has done since moving his tack west in late 2007?

Remember a guy named Bill Shoemaker?

As impressive as Bejarano has been, it’s nothing the Shoe didn’t do once he moved his business here from Northern California in 1949, and made winning titles look as easy as Bejarano has done.

The 26-year-old Bejarano joined Chris McCarron (1983) and Patrick Valenzuela (2003) as the only riders to win jockey titles at all five of the circuit’s major meets in a single year when he finished first during the recent Hollywood Park autumn meet.

Now he’s trying to match McCarron’s six consecutive titles, the record for a Southland jockey since 1981 (when Hollypark debuted its autumn meet), by winning the 2008-09 Santa Anita championship.

But Bejarano will need to score another sweep this season if he wants to break the all-time record for a local jockey.

Shoemaker won nine consecutive riding titles from 1952 through ’55 when there was no Oak Tree or Hollywood Park autumn meet.

He was just a 19-year-old apprentice when he won his first Southland title at Del Mar in 1949, his first of six consecutive titles at the beach. He followed that with two titles at Hollywood Park in 1950.

But the most extraordinary number associated with Shoemaker – beside his 8,833 lifetime victories – is the 33 consecutive Southland riding titles he won when riding in California. Shoemaker didn’t ride at Del Mar from 1955 through ’69, preferring to move his tack east during those years, but he won every single Santa Anita and Hollywood Park championship from 1953 through ’67.

“It’s unlikely it will ever be duplicated,” said longtime Southern California racing official Pete Pedersen, who retired in 2005 after 50 years as a steward in California. He was a paddock judge in 1949 when Shoemaker won his first race aboard Shafter V at Golden Gate Fields.

Some would argue the competition was weaker back in Shoe’s day, but Pedersen challenges that notion.

“You can’t say that because (Shoemaker) rode against (John) Longden, who was as tough as they come, and Ralph Neves,” the 88-year-old Pedersen said. “You can name all of the greats through those years that he rode against. That’s how good he was.”

“Shoemaker, wherever he went, it wasn’t long that he’d be the leading rider.”

Whereas Bejarano has major competition in Garrett Gomez, Joel Rosario, Tyler Baze, Victor Espinoza and other talented riders, Shoemaker had to contend with his share of tough jockeys. Besides Longden and Neves, there was Ismael Valenzuela, Manuel Ycaza, Donald Pierce and Ray York, among others.

And, during Santa Anita, Eddie Arcaro would often show up and ride throughout the meet.

“Arcaro would normally be here for the meeting, and it was a pleasure to see him ride,” Pedersen said. “I guess nationally they would say he was the greatest, and he was something else. He would do most anything to win a race.

“A number of Eastern jockeys would come out. This was a better place to be in the winter. Southern California is very lucky. They’ve seen most all of the great riders.”

Pedersen will admit the talent in the jockeys’ room at Santa Anita today is probably deeper than during Shoemaker’s heyday.

“You can go down eight or nine riders, and if you don’t get one you’ll get the other one, and they’re all top riders,” Pedersen said. “The nonracing fans wouldn’t realize how good these guys are. These are outstanding jocks.

“The quality of the riders has improved, they’ve improved as a group dramatically as professionals, and it’s changed a lot from what the early years were.”

Pedersen has seen Bejarano perform his magic and is a fan of the young Peruvian.

“He’s just a natural,” Pedersen said. “He’s just a great rider. He gets on horses and … there has to be a confidence. Milo Valenzuela was like that. He didn’t worry, get upset or anything. He knew the horses and he knew he could do it.

“This fellow (Bejarano) today, he might be the next great one, I don’t know. But he certainly is to be admired because he gets on horses and he moves them up.”

But in Pedersen’s mind, there might never be another Shoemaker.

“I watched Shoe from the day he won his first race, and I’ve seen so many great riders, but personally I’d put Shoemaker No. 1,” he said. “Shoemaker was a genius. He was so great for the trainers and the industry. He didn’t take a lot out of horses. He wasn’t a punishing rider. He got along with them, made them run.

“They say hands are important. Well, the hands are important for a jockey, and (Shoemaker) had the hands of a baby. He could do anything with a horse, and it was probably just the skill he had. He didn’t have to abuse horses. He might have made a few mistakes as a rider, but he had my admiration.”

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