Eugene Roche, perhaps the oldest active hot walker in the country at age 91, died Feb. 24, in Louisville.
Born in 1925 in Tampa, Fla., Roche took his first job walking horses at Sunshine Park when he was 25, spending the rest of his life in horse racing as a hotwalker, groom, owner, and trainer. He was walking horses, doing barn laundry, and cleaning tack as recently as December, after which Churchill Downs and its satellite Trackside training center closed stabling for the winter, reports the Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund.
Roche traveled to all the major racetracks in America while working long stints for some of the sport's winningest trainers, including Everett W. King and William E. "Smiley" Adams. He attended to some of the most remarkable horses in Thoroughbred racing, including 1968 New York Filly Triple Crown winner and Hall of Fame inductee Dark Mirage, 1975 Preakness Stakes (G1) winner Master Derby, and Run Dusty Run, who finished second to Seattle Slew in 1977 in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1).
He worked the past 25 years for trainer Marty Rouck while stabled in Kentucky. He rarely missed a Monday night church service held in Christ Chapel on Churchill Downs' backstretch. Known for his love of picking winners, Roche never handicapped horses from past performances, preferring to judge them instinctively, by their looks, character, and information provided by his many friends.
Roche will be missed by his colleagues on the track, his friends at Wagner's Pharmacy, and by his neighbors at the Old School Apartments, where he lived the last 15 years of his life, one block from Churchill Downs. A memorial service will be held during the Churchill Downs spring meet.