Mondays With Murray: Reflections on a Race

MAY 5, 1964, SPORTS



Reflections on a Race

   At the finish of the 90th running of the Kentucky Derby the other day, three exuberant youths in the infield shucked off their shirts, held their noses, and dove, head-first or feet-first, into the fountain-filled finish-line pool.

 Bettor observed this sourly. “Shouldn’t,” he asked, “Bill Shoemaker be joining them?” A mondaysmurray2companion thought about this for a minute: “Naw,” he said finally. “Not deep enough.”

  Clearly, only a high dive into 5th Avenue traffic, or a free fall from a balloon into an alligator pit would satisfy the punters who had bet more money on Hill Rise — $695,000 — than had ever been bet on a single steed in the Derby before, Shoemaker has had worse luck in Louisville than Scotch. “ ‘Shoe’ Boots It Again” was the kindest headline. The gnashing of teeth in the press box was deafening.

  There is a famous story in which a man of rather limited character references died in the Old West and was being buried. As speaker after speaker declined the chance to get up and extol his virtues, a stranger rose in the back of the room and announced: “Since there’s no one here to talk about the deceased, I’d like to take this opportunity to say a few kind words about Texas.”

  Well, I’d like to say a few kind words about Shoemaker. It has always been my custom to restrain my enthusiasm when talking about some athletes. But to give you an idea of the kind of guy Bill Shoemaker is, a colleague, not noted as the Louisa May Alcott of sports writing, either, once came up to me and said: “You know, just once I wish that Shoemaker would do something mean or snide so I could feel better about it when I write something critical. But he’s just as polite to me as if I compared him to the Pope.”

Churchill Downs Not Shoe’s Kind of Course

  It is abundantly clear that Churchill Downs in the Derby is just not Shoe’s kind of course. He’s as out of place as Veloz and Yolanda at a barn dance. It’s a cutthroat two-minute rodeo and the evidence is overwhelming it is meant to be won by someone on horseback riding with the demented fury of a sword-wielding Cossack charging into a crowd of mutinous peasants — which is as good a description of Bill Hartack’s style of riding as you can get in a hurry.

  A study of the jockeys who HAVE won this race shows that you apparently have to whomp up this kind of adrenal frenzy for it. A journalist said of one perennial winner, “I’ll tell you one thing — his mother better not be standing in that straightaway when he comes down to the finish.” Of another, he prophesied, “He’d ride his mount through a crowded classroom to get to the finish line on time.”

  Shoemaker rides as if he merely wanted to find out which was the best horse, which was the original idea of racing before they let in all those types with the holes in their shoes at the $2 window.

  Much has been said and written about Bill Hartack and his supposed indifference, not to say contempt, for notoriety and publicity. Bill Hartack is just as starved for affection and approval as the rest of us. It’s not much fun being 5-feet tall in a world where, when they think of a guy on horseback, they think of John Wayne, not John Adams. But it’s not much fun having to wear glasses if you’re a little girl, either, or having stomach ulcers if you’re a grown man, or not being able to read or write if you’re a perfect physical specimen. Put another way, why do ugly men become good dancers?

  Hartack’s posture is a classic one against rejection, which he fears far more than a guy with a pencil and notebook. He kept the press waiting for the same reason a suitor keeps a date waiting who’s secretly important to him. Hardly anyone is as mad at him as he is at himself most of the time.

Shoe Will be Big Winner in Long Run

  Shoemaker, on the other hand, adjusted to his role in life a long time ago. His dimensions made him shy, not truculent. He will win many more races — and many more friends — than Bill Hartack in the long run.

  Now, about that “terrible” ride of Shoe’s in the Derby. Consider that the winner had to run two lengths faster than the track record to beat him by a dirty neck. Consider, too, that the winner tied Whirlaway’s home stretch record of the last quarter in :24. Hill Rise was two lengths behind the winner when they hit the quarter pole, which means Hill Rise ran the last quarter in :23 3/5.

  No, the heartache was not Shoemaker’s. It was an old old man’s in a flowing topcoat and battered hat walking stiff-legged, arthritically, his glasses fogged up, out to the barns after the race to check his horse as he has done after 20,000 other races. At 73, Bill Finnegan had put the best horse of his career on the racetrack at Louisville. And he wasn’t good enough. At 73, you’re not likely to get a better one.

Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times

Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 60753, Pasadena, CA 91116


What is the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation? 

  The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, established in 1999 to perpetuate the Jim Murray legacy, and his love for and dedication to his extraordinary career in journalism. Since 1999, JMMF has granted 104 $5,000 scholarships to outstanding journalism students. Success of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation’s efforts depends heavily on the contributions from generous individuals, organizations, corporations, and volunteers who align themselves with the mission and values of the JMMF.

Like us on Facebook, and visit the JMMF website,


A dozen years ago, Linda McCoy-Murray compiled a book of Jim Murray’s columns on female athletes (1961-1998). While the book is idle waiting for an interested publisher, the JMMF thinks this is an appropriate year to get the book on the shelves, i.e., Jim Murray’s 100th birthday, 1919-2019.  

Our mission is to empower women of all ages to succeed and prosper — in and out of sports — while entertaining the reader with Jim Murray’s wit and hyperbole.  An excellent teaching tool for Women’s Studies.

Proceeds from book sales will benefit the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization providing sports journalism scholarships at universities across the country.

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