William Walker: A Jockey of Many Talents

The sport of horse racing in America dates to the colonial era, when Richard Nicolls, governor of New York, set up the first formal racetrack on Long Island. Since the 17th Century, the sport has thrived in all corners of the country, thanks to the tireless work of generations of men and women, especially African Americans like jockey Oliver Lewis and trainer Ed Brown, and the former slave turned jockey, trainer, and pedigree expert William Walker.

From his time in the saddle as a Kentucky Derby winning jockey to his final years as a pedigree expert and clocker, meet this star of the run for the roses’ earliest years.

Riding High

A son of slaves, William Walker was born in 1860 on a farm near Versailles in Woodford County, Ky. Like many African American jockeys of this era, Walker was already riding competitively at age 11, first at Jerome Park in New York and then later that year at the Kentucky Association track in Lexington. He won his first race that year and then his first stakes race at age 13.

Walker was 15 when he rode in the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875, a race in which 13 of the 15 horses were ridden by African Americans like Raleigh Colston, Jr. and Dick Chambers. Walker finished fourth on Bob Woolley behind Oliver Lewis aboard Aristides. Lewis was the jockey selected by trainer Ansel Williamson, also an African American, to ride H. Price McGrath’s colt.

The next day, Walker was riding Excel in a race on Churchill Downs’ second card when jockey Billy Lakeland moved his mount toward the rail, pushing Walker and Excel into the fence. The 15-year-old jockey managed to hang on until his horse righted himself and then made a bid to finish second. Young William was recognized for his bravery in a ceremony the day after the incident, receiving a $25 award and applause from the crowd.

Under contract to breeder and pinhooker Daniel Swigert, Walker rode Baden Baden in the 1877 Kentucky Derby. In a field of 11, the favorite Leonard held the lead for the first half of the 1½-mile race; Baden Baden took over with six furlongs to go and won easily under a hand ride. The third Kentucky Derby was the lone win for both William Walker and trainer Ed Brown, a former slave who started as a jockey and later became a trainer for Swigert, among others.

As the century drew to a close and African American jockeys were pushed to the sidelines, battles with weight and age prompted Walker to retire from riding in 1896. He saved enough from his days as a jockey to buy a home near Churchill Downs in Louisville. Even though his riding career was done, Walker was never far from the racetrack: he was able to leverage his success as a jockey into a career as a trainer, eventually working with John E. Madden, master of Hamburg Place.

Essential Expertise

Madden started his career with Standardbreds and then turned to Thoroughbreds, parlaying the profits from his sale of the great Hamburg into the famed stud Hamburg Place. There, he bred four Kentucky Derby winners and the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton.

Madden initially trained his own horses, but, as Hamburg Place grew, he focused on breeding and selling, bringing in others to train. He hired Walker to condition a division of his stable in 1915. The former jockey later became Sir Barton’s first trainer, preparing the future Triple Crown winner for his first four starts before Commander J.K.L. Ross purchased colt in August 1918.

In a time when African Americans were finding fewer opportunities in racing, Walker’s reputation gave him entrance into spaces that were often exclusively white. He served as pedigree expert, advising breeders like Madden as they considered pairings for their stallions and mares. Walker would make an annual pilgrimage to Saratoga for the yearling sales there, his expertise sought out by a multitude of buyers. Many a sale was not official until he had signed off on the pedigrees of the horses involved. He could recount the families of prominent Thoroughbreds through multiple generations, valuable knowledge that gave him a place within the sport that few African Americans enjoyed in that era.

Lasting Tribute

Not only did Walker ride in four editions of the Kentucky Derby, the last in 1896, but he also attended 59 of them himself, with Churchill Down easily accessible from his home on South First Street in Louisville. The former jockey took up clocking workouts in his later years, often seen trackside amongst the cadre of professional clockers. If they lost track of a horse working in a pack around the same spot, Walker would often be the one who had the fractional time, his keen eye an asset.

Racial conflicts in the early years of the 20th Century drove out many of the African Americans who had dominated the early years of the Kentucky Derby, but William Walker remained one of the few who was able to prosper. Though he was among the wealthiest African Americans in Kentucky when he died in 1933, Walker was buried in an unmarked grave in Louisville Cemetery. In 1996, Churchill Downs honored Walker by erecting a headstone detailing his accomplishments, a century after his last ride in the track’s most famous race.

A decade later, Churchill Downs would inaugurate the William Walker Stakes, a 5½ furlong listed turf stakes for 3-year-olds, a fitting tribute for a man so closely linked to the early years of America’s most famous race and its home.

Historic Horsemen

Like Ed Brown and Oliver Lewis, William Walker represents a generation of horsemen whose contributions to the sport are being remembered a century after racial tensions forced many African Americans out of racing. Though many continued to work as grooms and in other behind-the-scenes roles, the contributions of horsemen like Walker had remained largely unrecognized. Revisiting their accomplishments reminds us once again of the many stories that make racing an essential part of American sports history.