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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