Just ask Eibar Coa and Paco Lopez, or Brandon Meier. Being a jockey is a dangerous, thankless job, and over the past 30 days a notable number of incidents at Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Penn National and Aqueduct have rammed home that point. Yet, beyond the charismatic good ol' boy Calvin Borel and superstar Zenyatta’s long-time partner Mike Smith, most jockeys remain nearly anonymous to the general public these days. It wasn’t always that way.
During racing’s “Golden Age” jockeys enjoyed tremendous fame and status in American society, a natural occurrence given the sport’s high-profile and popularity. Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack both appeared on the cover of Time magazine at the height of their careers, while numerous Sports Illustrated covers featured jockeys such as Willie Shoemaker and Stevie Cauthen, Johnny Sellers and Johnny Longden.
Even that most quintessential of American weeklies, The Saturday Evening Post, published at least two jockey-themed covers.
In 1977, art collector and sports enthusiast Richard Weisman commissioned Andy Warhol to create—for a mere $800,000—a series of silk-screen paintings featuring 10 iconic athletes of the era. Each athlete chosen was paid $15,000 to allow Warhol to take Polaroids of them which would be silk-screened in various colors, with a total of six versions produced for each image. One set of the finished works, the one Weisman displayed in his West Los Angeles home, was stolen in 2009, although oddly Weisman refused to collect on the $25 million insurance policy just a month after the heist. However, other versions of the works live on in public collections and in authorized prints.
For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, who didn’t know figure skating champion Dorothy Hamill and tennis star Chris Evert, baseball pitcher Tom Seaver and soccer superstar Pele, basketball’s Kareem Abdul Jabbar and football running back OJ Simpson, golfer Jack Nicklaus and boxer Muhammad Ali? New York Rangers winger Rod Gilbert would soon be overshadowed by the phenomenon that was Wayne Gretzky, but The Shoe, Willie Shoemaker, would go on to win an Eclipse Award in 1981, not to mention his fourth Kentucky Derby (with Ferdinand in 1986, at age 54).
In his diary entry for March 28, Warhol discusses not only the scope of the commission, but also the conditions under which he took Shoemaker’s photograph:
At 4:00 I went to Fred’s room to photograph Willie Shoemaker the jockey. Richard Weisman’s commissioned me to do a series of athletes’ portraits. Richard will keep some of the portraits and some will be for sale and the athletes will get to keep some. So Willie was the first athlete…Willie’s wife called from the lobby and she came up with a girlfriend—but without Willie. He didn’t show up till ten after 5:00 and when he saw her, he couldn’t believe she was there. He’d been court getting a divorce from her, that’s why he was late.
Willie’s ex-wife of one hour was one of the tallest women I’ve ever seen. She was dressing Willie for the picture and he looked like an eight-year-old kid. And guess what he was wearing—little Jockey shorts! Ordered martinis, and the wife was drinking. She kept asking him for a date to celebrate the divorce and he kept turning her down, he said, “If I’d known you were going to be here I wouldn’t have come."
Ironic, isn’t it, that the ultimate celebrity whore Andy Warhol ended up immortalizing the shy Shoemaker, a man who—as Bill Nack noted in his 1980 Sports Illustrated article—despised the Beverly Hills/Hollywood social scene which so dominated his life during his marriage to Babs Beyer. And how prophetic that Warhol remarked upon completion of the Weisman series, “The sport stars of today are the movie stars of yesterday.”
So true today of most sports stars, that is, except those in the dying sport of horse racing.