Chronicles of the Black Jockeys Volume IV: When The US Congress Adjourned To See Billy Walker Race

In the aftermath of the Civil War, many of the great southern stables had been disrupted and Soup and Groupdismantled.  Horseracing had moved to the North East and to a lesser extent to the ‘West’, to the emerging blue grass states.  Racial attitudes in the North were predisposed to seeing the black jockeys as little more than relics from the plantation-South.  The northern press was also determined to see a ‘white’ sport develop in the North, with little similarities to its southern roots.  The Kentucky Derby, however, would provide a venue for a revitalized black jockey glory once more.  The 1875 inaugural Derby was won by black jockey Oliver Lewis, after which he effectively disappeared from racing and its spotlight.  But the Derby did give birth to, and reignited, the careers of other black jockeys, chief among them, 4th place finisher William “Billy” Walker.

Billy Walker was riding at Jerome Park in New York at age eleven and had won a stakes victory by thirteen.  After the 1877 Derby, fifteen year old Walker had emerged the favorite of the Louisville Jockey Club President, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (grandson of explorer William Clark) for both his performance in the Derby won by Oliver Lewis and for skills displayed in a race the day after the Derby.  In what was a dangerous situation for Walker during the race, he had been forced into fence by another jockey but held on even after being injured, to close the gap and place second.  The Commercial newspaper called him “the bravest jockey of them all,” and according to The Courier-Journal, “He had the women swooning when the fence palings were torn off and ‘the little black rider was pulled from his seat’.  There went out to him from the every woman’s throat a suppressed cry of sympathy and alarm while the men held their breath in suspense.”  “He deserves much credit for his skill and judgment.”  Walker had gotten the crowd on his side to the point where President Clark ordered Walker and his horse Excel up to the judges’ stand where he presented Billy Walker with a purse of $25 “as a mark of merit for the bravest riding ever done on the turf,” to the excitement of the crowd.

In 1877, at age seventeen, Billy Walker was riding in his second Kentucky Derby.  From his $15 a month contract and bonuses for wins, Walker save his money judiciously and invested heavily in real estate, which would later guarantee him one of the most glorious lives of any black jockey, as one of the wealthiest African Americans in Kentucky.

Walker won the 1877 Derby on ‘Baden Baden’, which was trained by Ed Brown, the former jockey known as ‘Dick’ who was now using his real name in his evolution to trainer.   In 1877, Walker also won the New Jersey Derby (then a more important race than Kentucky) riding ‘Baden Baden’ (now owned by New York's William Astor who insisted on Walker as the rider of his horse).  By this time, Billy Walker had become such a national sensation that in October of that year, the United States Congress, adjourned to see Billy Walker ride the ‘Ten Broeck’ at Pimlico in Maryland.

East Cost –West Coast ‘beef’

groupThe East Coast West Cost rivalry did not start with Rap music, as it would seem. A Fourth of July 1878 matchup in Louisville pitted Walker on the ‘Ten Broeck’ against the famed ‘Mollie McCarthy’ and her flamboyant millionaire owner, Elias “Lucky” Baldwin (future sponsor of Ike Murphy) from California. Baldwin would go on to make news on an off the track. Edward Hotaling describes “Lucky” as having struck it rich on Nevada mining stock, whereby he then developed a glorious stable on sixty thousand acres of lakes, orchards, vineyards, and rustic homes in Los Angeles. He named it Rancho Santa Anita (after one of his daughters), the remnants of which are today’s Santa Anita Racetrack. “Lucky” would gain fame for being a ladies man. After being sued by several ladies for ‘breach of promise’, he was nearly killed in open court by the bullet of a wounded heart, on offering his affirmative response to the young woman’s lawsuit that, “Any woman with an ounce of reputation to loose, would not have anything to do with him.”

Lucky felt the need to prove himself in the east, and his winning horse the ‘Mollie McCarthy’s defeat of the champion ‘Ten Broeck’ would was to have legitimized him.  Billy Walker, however, had other plans for Lucky and his horse, but not before a frightening encounter with his former admirer, non other than Louisville Jockey Club president Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr..

By 1878, sentiments had seemingly changed drastically… (or maybe not), and Billy Walker was reminded of the perils of being black.  The same Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. who had bestowed great accolades on Walker in the previous year, was now reminding him of the African American’s near and present proximity to the gallows.  Whatever the source, Clark told Walker before the race, “I hear you are going to throw this race.  You will be watched the whole way, and if you do not ride to win, a rope will be put about your neck, and you will be hung to the tree yonder.”   As Colonel Clark pointed to the tree opposite the judges’ stand, he continued, “I will help do it”.   Frightened at the assertion, the eighteen years old tried to get out of the race but Clark refuse his request.  Clark’s assertions were disputed by all with knowledge of the events, including the trainer of the horse.  Walker then rode the ‘Ten Broeck’ for the Fourth of July 1878 race and destroyed the competition.  The ‘Mollie McCarthy’ was so distanced that the horse ended the race by walking through the finish line.  Billy Walker it is stated, was a betting man and aftergroup jockeys II the race, it was discovered that he had place a big bet on himself and the Ten Broeck prior to being menaced by Clark, further dispelling any truth to Clark’s asserted rumors.

With that race, Walker also managed to deflate the flamboyant Baldwin’s west coast ego.  But Baldwin was on to something.  He would go on to be the main backer to another black jockey, Walker’s friend and mentee, the great Isaac Murphy.

A Life glorious of horses after Racing

With the exception of Jimmy Winkfield, Billy Walker would go on to enjoy the most illustrious post-racing life of all the black jockeys.  Hotaling states that along with former black rider “Dick” who would become the successful trainer Ed Brown, Walker lived out his life as one of the wealthiest African American in Kentucky.  He became a consultant and trainer to a stable that would produce four Derby winners.  He also became one of the country’s foremost experts in horse lineage and breeding, who according to Turf and Sport Digestcould trace the lineage of almost any American horse without references.” “Walker’s knowledge of bloodlines went even deeper. Not only could he trace to tap-root every thoroughbred of consequence but he could segregate the entire pack according to their families.” Stable owner for whom he worked, John Madden, would never trade a horse without Walker’s consent. Turf and Sport Digest went on to state, “His advice was sought on all sides by prospective buyers, especially certain rich Eastern financiers. He was well remunerated for this advice, and his Saratoga trips proved well worth his while. Consummation of many sales awaited his approval of the individual’s bloodlines”. He was welcomed into any Jockey Club hall in the Midwest, regardless of the audience, and as was said, “He was permitted to join in any and all debates which might be in progress.”

William “Billy” Walker spent his final years as a clocker at Churchill Downs, one of the men paid to record official times of horses during workouts.   He died in 1933 at age seventy-two.Ike Murphy I

Next: The celebrated Isaac “Ike” Murphy

For more on the black jockeys and jockey boy paintings for sale, see http://www.ealymaysartworks.com/artworks/jockey-boy-series

Editors Note: In celebration of the history of black jockeys in the Kentucky Derby, we will spend a week chronicling the history of the great black jockeys who pioneered the sport but were then banished from the sport in the early 1900s, and from much of its history. Kentucky Derby Facts: Black jockeys won 8 of the first 16 Derbies and 15 of the first 28. 13 of the 15 jockeys in 1875's inaugural Derby were black, including the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis aboard his horse Aristides. Isaac "Ike" Murphy became the first jockey to capture successive Kentucky Derbies in 1891 and the first to win a total of three, and James “Wink” Winkfield would win successive races in 1901 and again in 1902 on his horse Alan-a-Dale. Other winners included Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, Babe Hurd, James "Soup" Perkins, Erskine Henderson, and Willie Simms. 

(Sources include Edward Hotaling’s book, The Great Black Jockeys and The Library of Congress.)

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