As part of its effort to honor Black jockeys and trainers who played a significant role in racing history, particularly during the first 30 years of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs inaugurated a new 6-furlong race for 3-year-olds in 2015 called the William Walker Stakes. Held during the spring meet, this stakes race memorializes the nineteenth-century Black jockey William “Billy” Walker (1860–1933), a Kentucky Derby-winning rider who was born enslaved in Woodford County, Kentucky, and whose story we are sharing during Black History Month.
In 1877, 17-year-old Walker won the third running of the Derby aboard Baden-Baden—who was managed by the Black trainer, Ed Brown—finishing the 1½ mile race in a time of 2:38 ahead of 11 other runners. “Beautiful weather, interesting races, and an attendance of 10,000 persons were the features of the Derby Day,” reported the Kentucky Advocate about the race. “A good start was made, Leonard leading to the final three-quarters, when Baden Baden came up, winning easily without the whip.”
Walker also found success aboard Hall of Fame inductee Ten Broeck, who previously won five races as a 3-year-old, including beating the first Derby winner Aristides in the 1875 Phoenix Hotel Stakes at Lexington; at age four he won seven of eight races, and nine of 10 at age five. Like Baden-Baden, the colt Ten Broeck had another Black trainer and jockey duo driving his success in his last races, with Walker piloting and Harry Colston training.
At Pimlico in October 1877, Walker and Ten Broeck finished second in a 2 1/2 mile, three-way match against Parole, who won the race, and Tom Ochiltree. Walker and the horse returned to the track two days later to win Pimlico’s Bowie Stakes. “The Bowie Stakes race, four mile heats, was the affair of the day,” reported The Daily Memphis Avalanche, “and it became so because Kentucky had sent her favorite son, Ten Broeck, beyond the mountains to show that blue grass and blue blood meant something else than sentiment.”
In the horse’s final year at age six, Walker and Ten Broeck were victorious in his two races. In May 1878 in Lexington they won at 1½ miles, again beating Aristides in what was his last race; Ten Broeck’s owner originally attempted to scratch him from the race due to a suspected injury, but proceeded to run him.
Walker and Ten Broeck’s final triumph occurred in a four mile held on July 4, 1878, over the Louisville track that would be named Churchill Downs five years later in 1883. The pair defeated the California mare Mollie McCarty in this match race that was memorialized with the folk song, “Run, Molly, Run.” Walker was leading rider at the Louisville track for six total meets during the years 1875–1878 and 1881.
If you’ve visited Pimlico, you may have unwittingly seen the artwork that commemorates the 1877 match race in which Walker and Ten Broeck finished second. Above the clubhouse entrance to the track hangs “The Great Race,” a 30 x 10 foot stone sculpture gilded in 24-karat gold leaf, a reproduction of the Currier & Ives print of Parole, Ten Broeck and Tom Ochiltree competing in the three-way match race; Walker rides Ten Broeck in the foreground, in second place next to Parole.
We would be remiss in not mentioning the New Orleans racing connection to Ten Broeck, as the colt was named for Richard Ten Broeck, proprietor of New Orleans’ Metairie Course during the 1850’s. Ten Broeck campaigned the mighty Lexington, champion of the four-mile whose infamous rivalry with Louisiana’s hero Lecomte was staged over the Metairie track during 1854–1855, concluding with Lexington being crowned the best horse in America. Lexington’s success continued at stud at Woodburn Farm, as the stallion topped the Leading Sire list 16 times—a record which still stands today.