By Eliza McGraw
The phrase “walkover” refers to any uncontested or easy win. In politics, a walkover occurs when there is only one candidate for a given election, or when the others have defaulted or are so far behind as to be entirely non-competitive. The term comes, however, from horse racing. Traditionally, in British racing, even if only one horse appeared for a certain race, that horse still had to “walk over” the course.
Walkovers are uncommon these days. There was a walkover last year in England, but it was more a protest over prize money than any particular elevation of the “winner.” Less for glory, and more for spite. The last horse to win a walkover here in America was Chinese Export, in a $1,500 allowance race in 1982 in Pennsylvania.
But over the years some of racing’s stars have taken the track alone in memorable ways. On August 12, 1892, Kingston (a Spendthrift colt) won the Orange Stakes in a walkover, disappointing his public. The crowd wanted a real race, but owners feared Kingston. “There was no horse in training eligible for the race that could make him run at the distance,” explained a reporter for the New York Times. The reporter seemed almost bored by the whole enterprise, and spent a paragraph talking about an oil stove explosion (the track kitchen used the stove to keep chowder warm), which caused no damage but did add some excitement to an otherwise dull day. To make up for the disappointment, racing officials added another race to the card.
Later that year, however, Exterminator would have his opportunity for a real walkover, at the 1 ¾ miles Saratoga Cup. No one wanted to face Exterminator at a distance race; even Man o’ War had backed down the year before. And he had won the Saratoga Cup the previous two years. (He would go on to win it a fourth time, as well.) “This year the victory was by default, for in all the fine horses that fill the country’s racing stables there was none so bold as to match speed and courage and stamina with the son of McGee at a mile and three-quarters,” wrote one reporter. That walkover presented Exterminator as a larger-than-life hero that “none were so bold” as to face.
Even after Exterminator’s time, there was something daunting enough about the Saratoga Cup that the bold sometimes stood alone at its start. In 1940 Isolater won it in a walkover (he did have a stablemate for company), and in 1945 so did the fractious, uneven, but fast Stymie. People loved Stymie, who was born on a Texas ranch and showed no sign of greatness early. He was unreliable at short distances, but he could come from far behind to win races with tremendous stamina and dash. As Exterminator could have told him, the Saratoga Cup was a nice long distance, perfect for a stayer. No one wanted to take on the high-headed chestnut and that day, he ran his race “in solitary grandeur,” said the Catskill Examiner.
This week in 1948, Citation was only a 3-year-old when he shook off rivals to run unopposed in the Pimlico Invitational Special Stakes, something Whirlaway had done in 1942. Eddie Arcaro held Citation in at the beginning of the course, and then let him go for the last two furlongs. And they won $10,000 for galloping the 1 3/16 miles course in a sleepy 1:59 4/5.
Spectacular Bid’s walkover at the 1980 Woodward, with Willie Shoemaker aboard, was similarly historic. It was his last race. “Spectacular Bid versus. . .no one,” says the voice-over on the video. He’s carrying 126 pounds including Shoemaker. You can see that he’s not extending himself as he would have if there were more horses out there, but you can also see his tremendous stride, his unusually dark-gray coat, the muscular power with which he moves, and Shoemaker’s ability to hold him in without costing either of them any grace.
1980 Woodward Stakes
Which is what we all want from a walkover. Whether it’s the Bid or a protest in England or the great Exterminator, a walkover is something to talk about. It allows something so rarely seen on the racetrack (think of Ron Turcotte’s disbelief during Secretariat’s Belmont): a horse galloping alone.
Walkovers give us a moment to appreciate, for a few moments, the splendid, if simple, spectacle of a Thoroughbred horse, running.