SAN MARINO, Calif. -- Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker, who rode four Kentucky Derby winners and was a commanding presence in thoroughbred racing for more than 40 years, died Sunday. He was 72.
Shoemaker died in his sleep at his suburban home near Santa Anita racetrack, according to longtime friend and trainer Paddy Gallagher. Gallagher, an assistant during Shoemaker's training career that ended in 1997, said doctors told him Shoemaker died of natural causes.
He had been paralyzed from the neck down since a car accident in 1991.
It was the second major death in horse racing this year. Johnny Longden, who won the Triple Crown aboard Count Fleet in 1943 and was the only jockey to ride and train a Kentucky Derby winner, died in February at 96.
Shoemaker broke Longden's record of 6,032 career victories in 1970 and held it until Laffit Pincay Jr. broke Shoemaker's mark of 8,883 wins in 1999.
"He was one of the greatest human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing in my life," said retired jockey Chris McCarron, now general manager of Santa Anita. "Forget about his ability to communicate with horses, his compassion for people was second to none."
Only 4-foot-11, the athlete known simply as "The Shoe" throughout his career rode for 41 years, most of them in Southern California, considered to be the most competitive circuit in America.
"For a man his size, wearing a size 2 1/2 shoe, he was a giant," retired Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye said.
In 1986, at age 54, he became the oldest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby when he guided Ferdinand along a small opening on the rail in a ride considered one of the greatest ever.
That win came 21 years after his previous Derby win, aboard Lucky Debonair in 1965. He won America's most famous race four times, including in 1959 with Tomy Lee and 1955 with Swaps.
Perhaps his most famous Derby ride was one he lost, in 1957.
Dueling toward the finish line at Churchill Downs were Gallant Man, ridden by Shoemaker, and Iron Liege, ridden by Bill Hartack.
At the sixteenth pole, Shoemaker stood up, mistaking it for the finish line. He sat back down immediately but Gallant Man lost by a nose. He received a 15-day suspension from the stewards for the rule violation.
But Gallant Man's owner, Ralph Lowe, found no fault and gave Shoemaker $5,000 and a new car. Five weeks later, Shoemaker rode Gallant Man to an eight-length victory in the Belmont Stakes.
Besides four Derby victories, Shoemaker won two Preakness Stakes, five Belmont Stakes and rode Ferdinand to a victory over Alysheba in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic to capture Horse of the Year honors.
His last race was Feb. 3, 1990, after a yearlong tour of racetracks in North America to exhibit his skill to fans who had never seen him. A crowd of 64,573 showed up at Santa Anita to see him and his mount, Patchy Groundfrog, finish fourth in a nationally televised race.
All told, Shoemaker rode in a record 40,350 races.
Shoemaker's riding style of sitting almost still on a horse was emulated by generations of jockeys. His former wife, Cindy, said watching him ride was "like listening to a pretty song or reading poetry."
Known mostly as Willie, Shoemaker was born in Fabens, Texas, on Aug. 19, 1931, so small he was kept as an infant in a shoebox near a fire to stay warm.
He boxed and wrestled in high school but decided to become a jockey because of his size. He dropped out of school to ride for $75 a month plus room and board at a La Puente, Calif., horse ranch.
He won his first race April 20, 1949, at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco; his final victory came nearly 41 years later, on Jan. 20, 1990.
Shoemaker loved to ride - at any time.
In 1965, he was returning to his hotel from a party at 4:30 a.m. on the day of the Kentucky Derby when a friend suggested they go to Churchill Downs and that Shoemaker work out a horse the friend had stabled there.
He did, wearing a tuxedo, then 12 hours later rode Lucky Debonair to his third Derby victory.
After retirement, Shoemaker was emphatic when asked if he missed riding.
"No, I went 40 years," he said. "That's long enough. It's time to do something else."
Two days after being released from a hospital where he underwent rehabilitation after the 1991 car accident, Shoemaker returned to act as a trainer at Santa Anita. He retired from training in 1997, after winning 90 races and nearly $3.7 million.
He is survived by his former wife and only child, Amanda.