William S. Walker, Jock of All Trades

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Young William Walker (Photo from Kentucky Historical Society)

Before his Triple Crown, records, and match race with Man o’ War, Sir Barton was a part of his breeder John E. Madden’s stable, going winless in his first four starts. Madden was a prolific breeder and consummate salesman who sold almost every horse his Hamburg Place turned out by the time the colt or filly was two. In July 1918, Madden had sent the son of Star Shoot-Lady Sterling to Aqueduct for his first start. His jockey for this first start was Arthur Collins. His trainer? William S. Walker, one of the country’s greatest African American jockeys.

Walker was born a slave in 1860, on a farm outside of Versailles, KY. He started his riding career at age 11 and rode his first stakes winner at 13. Walker quickly gained a reputation for bravery, especially after a particularly perilous ride in a race the day after the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. Another African American jockey, Billy Lakeland,  crowded his horse against Walker’s mount Excel, pinning them against the rail and nearly sending both horse and rider into the infield. Excel recovered, Walker sent his mount after the leaders, closing the gap to finish second by only half a length. His bravery earned him an award at a special ceremony the next day, President Meriwether Lewis Clark giving him a silk purse with $25 in recognition of his fortitude.

After riding in the first two Derbies, Billy Walker won the 1877 Kentucky Derby on Baden Baden at age 17. He retired from the saddle in 1896, parlaying the money he earned riding into real estate and then horses of his own. Walker became an owner, trainer, and a pedigree expert. He worked with John E. Madden as a breeding consultant and, in 1915, became Madden’s trainer. Walker trained Sir Barton for his first four starts in 1918, before Madden sold the son of Star Shoot to Commander Ross.

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Photo from Louisville Courier Journal (9/21/1933)

 

Eventually, William S. Walker left training, but continued to consult with Madden and others as they attended sales in search of good horses. In his later years, he spent time at Churchill Downs, taking up clocking workouts as a hobby. William S. Walker passed away on September 20, 1933, at age 73. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Louisville Cemetary; in 1996, Churchill Downs dedicated a large granite gravestone in Walker’s memory, memorializing the career of this pioneering African American.

In 2015, Churchill Downs named a six-furlong sprint for three-year-olds for William S. Walker. This year may also bring Walker’s induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, a fitting tribute to a man who did so much for this sport, including training, albeit briefly, America’s first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton.

Sources for this blog post:

Gerald L. Smith, Karen Cotton McDaniel, John A. Hardin. The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 512-513.

Edward Hotaling. The Great Black Jockeys. Rocklin, CA: Forum (Prima Publishing), 1999. 230-237; 333-334.

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Happy Birthday, American Pharoah!

americanpharoahWhen I was in 11th grade, we were required to write a formal research paper, replete with note cards, documentation style (MLA), thesis, and more. Fortunately, our teacher allowed us to pick the subject of this long-form assignment — within reason, of course. Before she had finished giving us the requirements for the paper, I already knew what I wanted to write about: the Triple Crown. The perfect subject for this racing nerd who lived in a virtual racing desert.

By this point, almost twenty years had elapsed since Affirmed, with a number of unsuccessful bids in those intervening years. I watched Sunday Silence duel for the Preakness with Easy Goer only to come up short in the Belmont. I felt the keen, gutting disappointment of watching the Derby-Preakness winner passed on the turn, in the stretch, at the wire. The distress of Charismatic’s injury. California Chrome’s mishap at the start. Each year, I hoped against hope, and, as I grew older, as I saw more of those who came so close, I began to wonder if I would be lucky enough to ever see a Triple Crown.

apbelmontAnd then he came sweeping into our lives, the Pharoah, the ruler of the American classics. American Pharoah drew us in and never let us go, keeping us entranced by his sweet demeanor and his effortless stride. Like Secretariat, like the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry, he mesmerized us, keeping us all enthralled well past the wire.

As I finish up this book on America’s first Triple Crown winner, I grow more and more grateful for the chance to have seen American Pharaoh’s domination of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. I cry each time I watch that stretch run, as Frosted looked like he might spoil it all and then the marvelous acceleration as American Pharoah showed us what the pinnacle of thoroughbred racing looks like, a legend in flight with each strike of his hooves on the humble earth.

Happy Birthday once again, AP. Happy birthday to the horse that hit the highest of highs and took us all with him. Once again, we celebrate you, “the horse of a lifetime.”