Smarty Jones begins The Walk in 2004 at Churchill Downs

Smarty Jones begins The Walk in 2004 at Churchill Downs

BloodHorse Library

A Nack BackTrack: Walking the Kentucky Derby Walk

This week, BackTrack celebrates the late Bill Nack's work for BloodHorse.

By half past five on the afternoon of May 1, with the backstretch still awash in running creeks and pools of water created by the cloudburst that had struck an hour earlier, the 18 horses entered in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I)—led by their rubber booted grooms and tracked by assorted followers—had sloshed through the muddy waters and were now circling the end of the mile chute on the racetrack at Churchill Downs.

They had all braved the elements, of course, as part of a necessary prelude to carrying out a ritual as old as the Derby itself—the 10-minute trek from the gap in the fence at the end of the chute to the saddling paddock that lies behind the mammoth grandstand, with its Twin Spires looming against the sky like soaring emblems of the race's history. It is a richly symbolic journey that has come to be known, over the last 10 or so years, as The Walk. And it represents, among the interlocking events leading up to the Derby, that extraordinary moment when the Run for the Roses turns from something abstract to a matter quite concrete, when it is transformed from a mere idea, a goal, into the suddenly vibrant sounds and sensations of a place, a day, a roaring crowd.

In fact, for those who choose to accompany their horses, the Kentucky Derby really begins with The Walk.
Among those gathered on the racetrack by the gap was Rick Violette, the trainer of Read the Footnotes, who was saddling his first Derby starter. "The tension builds all week and then there's a lull on Saturday morning," Violette said. "The media crowd thins out. The work is done. Then the tension builds again in the afternoon. Finally, you bridle your horse and you wait."

Until, at last, you hear the voice over the stable PA system bark out: "Bring your horses to the paddock for the 10th race. Bring your horses over for the Derby ..."

And then the sense of tension mounts again. "And then you walk your horse out of the barn and bring him here," said Violette. "And you wait, like we are now, for The Walk."

It began this time almost as soon as all 18 horses had finally arrived at the point of assembly at the top of the clubhouse turn, and at once the horses and their handlers fell in line behind the outriders and someone called out, "Let's move out!"

All around the clubhouse turn, even in the rain, fans gathered by the fence and called to the horses as they passed by, one by one, their manes and tails blowing in the wind, their eyes darting left and right, their ears pricking and turning at all the racetrack sounds.

Now Tapit  and his groom were walking slowly around the turn: "Come on, Tapit!" someone yelled from the stands. "You can do it. Wooooooo, yeah!"

And there was The Cliff's Edge, with trainer Nick Zito walking nearby. Zito would not miss The Walk. This was the 10th year that he has had at least one starter in the Derby, and he has never passed a chance to walk his horses over, beginning with Thirty Six Red in 1990 and including his two winners, Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994). "An incredible experience, one you can never forget," said Zito. "The Walk, it's like you're part of the Roman Army. You come out of that gap and you look up and there's all those people screamin' and hollerin'. Unbelievable."

They were hollerin' as The Cliff's Edge strolled along the outside fence, heading clockwise up the homestretch toward the wire. "Hey, Cliffy, you're the best," a voice cried out.

And no one on that racetrack was popping his buttons with greater pride than Bill Foster, the tall, gray-haired foreman for trainer John Servis' racing stable. Foster was walking next to Arkansas Derby (gr. II) winner Smarty Jones , who was undefeated at 6-0 and eyeing a $5-million bonus put up by Oaklawn Park. The 64-year-old Foster confessed to "feeling exhilarated" as he accompanied his unflappable charge past the crowds. He had heard about The Walk—"You hear about it all week," Foster said—but nothing can really prepare a soul for the intensity of the experience. "A tremendous feeling to walk him over there, the ultimate thrill," Foster said. And, he added, it was particularly gratifying to feel the warmth of the fans as the little chestnut paraded by.

"Come on, Smarty," they yelled. "You're the horse to win it!" And then someone added in a kind of chant: "Go, Smarty, go!"

Of course, Churchill Downs has been the scene of The Walk since the inaugural running of the race in 1875, but no one ever paid it much mind until the 1990s, when it evolved into the institution that it is today. As recently as 1972, the year that I made the first of what has turned out to be 33 consecutive editions of The Walk, the only people accompanying the 16 Derby starters in the paddock were the grooms leading the horses and a few horsemen and assorted hotwalkers. The next year, I recall Eddie Sweat leading Secretariat past those sun-splashed stands—"Easy, Red, easy now," Sweat kept muttering to the colt, who at one point stopped and raised his head and gazed into the distant crowds. A few years later it was LeRoy Jolley walking with winners Foolish Pleasure (1975) and later Genuine Risk (1980), who was on her way to becoming only the second filly in history to win the Derby.

Like Zito and Bob Baffert in the years to come, D. Wayne Lukas had always seemed to make it a point to walk with his charges to the paddock, and it was during the rise to power of these three trainers—particularly of Baffert, with his entourage of agents and family—that The Walk became The Thing to do. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing an owner do The Walk—owners usually hung out in the boxes and dining rooms—until Bob Lewis showed up to join Baffert and Silver Charm and Co. in 1997. Baffert had invited Lewis, who said, "Anyone who has a horse in the Kentucky Derby and doesn't take that walk is missing half the exhilaration of the Derby experience. It is fabulous, phenomenal."

In all those years, of all the horsemen who led their Derby charges to the paddock, I saw no one exude the confidence of Buddy Delp in 1979, when he joined the mighty Spectacular Bid for The Walk. As fans draped themselves on the railing and called Bid's name, Delp's gait was far closer to a strut than a walk. "Don't worry about a thing!" Delp yelled at the fans. "Go bet!" The bettors cheered them on—right into the winner's circle.

Lukas insists that the lure of The Walk, at least for the horsemen, is that it crowns months of careful preparation—through all the prep races, through all the training and feeding and mental conditioning—and The Walk represents the final coming out. "It's a very prideful thing," Lukas says. "It's very emotional. Your chest swells up when you walk them over. You're thinking, 'This is mine. This is my horse. We made it! We've arrived!' It's a great, great feeling. So you get that rush. There's actually two rushes. The first when you walk 'em over. And the second when you walk 'em into the winner's circle."

And even, sometimes, when you walk them back to the barn. Lukas vividly recalls the year he walked his filly, Winning Colors, to the paddock, and along the way heard some men yelling from behind a chain-link fence: "Hey, Lukas, can't you read the condition book? They ran the Oaks yesterday. How stupid are you?" Forty-five minutes later Lukas was leading her from the winner's circle back to the barn when the same bunch yelled, "Hey, Wayne, we had her all the way, baby! Way to go!"

Among my own most enduring memories of The Walk traces to 1982, when I stood at the gap studying the Form, trying to devine who would win this most wide-open of Derbys. I always tried to walk over with the horse I thought would wear the roses. As the horses began The Walk, I spotted trainer Eddie Gregson walking next to Gato Del Sol. The colt looked wonderful. So I hopped off the fence and joined them in The Walk. Eddie glanced up at the crowded stands.

"It's amazing," he said. "I schooled this horse in the paddock, but you can school a horse every day and not re-create this. You have to have a horse physically fit to run this far in May and mentally ready to go through it. To me, it's like climbing Mount Everest ..." The vast throng hollered to him as he passed. Changing metaphors, Gregson added quietly, "Now I know what it was like when the gladiators entered the Roman Colosseum."

A half-hour later, of course, Gregson simply continued The Walk—now leading Gato into the winner's circle at the Downs.