--The Shoe: Willie Shoemaker's Illustrated Book of Racing, by Willie Shoemaker and Dan Smith
LOS ANGELES, August 17, 2010--Had Bill Shoemaker still been alive, he would have been in the front row cheering, or even better on the stage handing out the bijou, when Don Pierce was inducted last week into the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Enshrinement for the 73-year-old Pierce was a long time coming, and to be honest I thought his chances had dipped to zero and none after several times on the ballot. When we talked at length in March, on the day Santa Anita honored Calvin Borel with the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, I didn't even bring up the Hall of Fame. At that time, Pierce, and those who remembered how he could ride the hair off a horse, had given up hope.
One of those times came in 1964, when Pierce won the Santa Anita Derby with Hill Rise, but was bumped by Shoemaker for the Kentucky Derby. For Pierce, it was a crushing blow. He would never win a Derby, and this was his big chance. It is easy to forget now, because Northern Dancer's win that year came in the fastest Derby ever run, but Hill Rise was the favorite in the race and the consensus choice as the best 3-year-old in the country. At Churchill Downs, Hill Rise had a nightmare trip and still only lost by a neck. "He should have won," Pierce says now. "Shoe and his agent, Harry Silbert, submarined me for the mount. But there was no way I was going to get mad at Shoe. He was my pal. I didn't understand what went on then, but I understand it now. Harry did the right thing. He was just doing his job."
Two years before, in the Santa Anita Handicap, there was a three-horse betting entry of Olden Times (Shoemaker's mount), Prove It (Alex Maese) and Physician (Pierce). It was commonplace at the time, as the stewards winked at the practice, for jockeys riding coupled horses to share their commissions from the purse, but Physician, had he been running alone, might have gone off at 100-1. "Pierce can't win this race," Shoemaker said to Maese. "It'll just be you and me out there."
On the turn for home, Physician and Pierce unleashed a tremendous rally. They went by Olden Times as though he were on a treadmill. Shoemaker, looking to his right, saw Pierce going by and yelled out: "You're in!"
Pierce, looking over his shoulder as Physician pulled away, yelled back: "(Eff) you!"
The two little men looked at each other and laughed till they almost cried in the jockeys' room.
There was another time when Pierce was supposed to ride Hill Rise in a big race, but didn't. Hit with a suspension, the best Pierce could do for the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap was sit in the Santa Anita Turf Club and watch the race. And by the way, he had placed a $100 win bet on Hill Rise's nose. But when George Royal made his winning move under the iconic John Longden, who was riding his last race, Pierce stood and cheered with the rest of the throng.
For Pierce, the cheering stopped in 1985, after more than 28,000 races and 3,546 wins. The pain from a back injury, from a spill at Hollywood Park the year before, was still with him. This January morning, Pierce dressed at home as he prepared to go to Santa Anita to work a few horses. He walked down the stairs and got as far as the front door. He thought for a moment, then turned around and went back upstairs. After taking off his boots, he made phone calls to a few trainers. He told them that Don Pierce wasn't working there anymore.