Monday, October 28, 2013

William "Billy" Walker, African American Jockey

Continuing with our Kentucky horse history discussion, I thought I'd share the great tintype photograph above of African American jockey William "Billy" Walker and a little of his story.

Walker was born enslaved in 1860, deep in the heart of Kentucky horse country, Woodford County. Some evidence indicates that he was reared on the horse farm and plantation, Bosque Bonita, of Abraham Buford, future Confederate cavalry general in Nathan Bedford Forest's command. Other sources say he was brought up at Nantura Farm, owned by John Harper, the owner of Longfellow, the subject of yesterday's post. Regardless of which farm birthed Walker, undoubtedly he grew up around horses and was familiar with their ways from an early age.

As a boy of eleven Walker made his jockey debut at Jerome Park in New York. At twelve he had his first win, won at a race in Lexington. Gaining riding experience Walker added to his win total and knowledge of jockeying. In the inaugural Kentucky Derby, in 1875, he placed fourth. The following year he finished eighth in the Derby. In 1877, Walker captured the Kentucky Derby riding Baden Baden, who had been trained by noted ex-jockey Edward Dudley "Brown Dick" Brown. In 1876 Walker rode Ten Broeck to a stunning win in a match race against the California horse Mollie McCarty at the Louisville Jockey Club (later known as Churchill Downs) before a crowd of 30,000 spectators. The race became immortalized in the folk song "Molly and Tenbrooks."

Walker's career as a jockey spanned nearly 25 years. After retiring from riding, Walker remained on the horse racing scene as a trainer and respected adviser, providing owners advice on which horses to purchase and breed. Walker's knowledge of horse pedigree was second to none. Walker wound up his career in the horse industry as a clocker at Churchill Downs for the spring and fall meets.

The 1930 census lists Walker as being 70 years old and living in Louisville with his wife Hannah, 57, and son William Jr., 36. He owned his home, valued at $5000, and his occupation was listed as "Racing." Walker died on September 20, 1933, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Louisville Cemetery, a traditionally African American graveyard in that city. Fortunately, during Derby week in 1986, a headstone was placed on Walker's grave noting his many accomplishments.

Image courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society.


  1. I am in need of a 300dpi black-and-white image of all three of the photos in your blog (Ten Broeck, William Walker, the Currier and Ives Print) for a book I've written. Could you tell me whether this is something you could supply, and what the cost would be? You would receive a photo credit, and a mention in my Acknowledgments section (the book is written, just needs some photos). Thank you for your prompt response - my deadline is April 1. Yours - Mark Shrager

  2. Do you know what color his silks were in 1877 race.

    1. Ten Broeck sported red ribbons in his mane, his stable colors. Tom Ochiltree carried George Lorillard's orange and blue colors, while Parole's jockey William Barrett wore Pierre's famed cherry jacket and black cap.

  3. I'm sorry, but I don't know the color of his silks in 1877. You might check with the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville.