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Important Names, Tradition Honored in Churchill Downs Derby Week Stakes

The annual celebration of the Kentucky Derby is a multi-layered affair, but remembrance and recollection of the Derby’s tradition and history are essential components of a race that has been held without interruption since its debut in 1875.

With that mission in mind, Churchill Downs will honor two very important figures in the history of the Kentucky Derby and the track during Derby Week with stakes races during those festive five days.

New names on a pair of the Spring Meet’s roster of 25 stakes events are named for jockeys: one a member of Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame and the other who probably should be enshrined in that facility.

Hall of Fame Jockey Pat Day, shown after his 1992 Kentucky Derby victory aboard Lil E. Tee, will be honored with a stakes race named in his honor on Kentucky Derby Day.

Hall of Fame Jockey Pat Day, shown after his 1992 Kentucky Derby victory aboard Lil E. Tee, will be honored with a stakes race named in his honor on Kentucky Derby Day.

A race known through its history as The Derby Trial, long the final prep for the Kentucky Derby has been moved to Kentucky Derby Day and renamed the Pat Day Mile.  The new name honors one the greatest riders in American racing, the all-time win leader at the home of the Kentucky Derby and a treasured citizen of Louisville, which he adopted as his home when he decided to make Churchill Downs his home base in the mid-1980s.

The other race is a new one: a six-furlong sprint set for the April 25 “Opening Night” program and named in honor of William “Billy” Walker Sr., one of the great African-American jockeys who dominated the Derby in its early years and played a strong role in Kentucky’s horse industry throughout his life. Three African-American jockeys won the Derby and earned enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, and my hope is that Walker might make that group a foursome not far down the road.

While acknowledging Day’s massive shadow over Churchill Downs racing during his more than 20 years of riding beneath the Twin Spires, a few critics of the changes for the Derby Trial have bemoaned a tinkering with tradition.

That sentiment is understandable, and it was my personal stance in recent years.

A new Churchill Downs stakes races honors jockey William Walker, a former slave who won the 1877 Derby aboard Baden-Baden.

A new Churchill Downs stakes races honors jockey William Walker, a former slave who won the 1877 Derby aboard Baden-Baden.

Its history is unquestionable: eventual Derby winner Black Gold won the first Derby Trial in 1924, and Calumet Farm’s storied “Jones Boys” – Ben and son Jimmy – prepped seven Derby winners in the trial, which was run on Tuesday of Derby Week during its glory years in the 1940s and 50s. The Calumet winners included Triple Crown winners Citation in 1948 and Whirlaway in 1941.

But the most recent Trial horse to play any type of significant role in the Derby was Don’t Get Mad, who won the Trial and finished fourth to 50-1 shot Giacomo in the 2005 Derby.

So a change was needed and has been named, and the race now honors Day, the Colorado native whose more than 8,000 career wins included a record 2,482 at Churchill Downs. One of those victories was the 1992 Kentucky Derby, in which Day piloted W.C. Partee’s Lil E. Tee to the win for Churchill Downs-based trainer Lynn Whiting.  Day also enjoyed Triple Crown success in the Preakness, which he won five times, and the Belmont Stakes, a race he won on three occasions, and is one of the most dominant riders in the history of the Breeders’ Cup.

Walker also has a single Derby win to his credit – a triumph at the age of 17 aboard 1877 winner Baden-Baden. But he also piloted Ten Broeck to victory in the famed match race with California-based Molly McCarthy at the Louisville track in 1878 – a race remembered today in the Bluegrass music chestnut “Molly and Tenbrooks.” He was leading rider at six of the track’s first 13 meets. Upon retirement from the saddle, Walker became a trainer and later he was a key bloodstock adviser for famed Lexington breeder John E. Madden, who bred five winners of the Kentucky Derby.

Born a slave, Walker spent most of his life in Louisville. But his career expanded well beyond the city and touched all facets of Kentucky’s horse industry.    

The debut of the William Walker Stakes will remind racing and the entire community of a man who, like latter-day hero Pat Day, had a significant influence on the Derby, Kentucky’s horse industry and life in our region. VT