Four-time Jamaican jockey champion Omar Walker isn't used to eating mud, but it doesn't appear he'll have to.
The much heralded 31-year-old jockey from Portmore, Jamaica scored a natural hat trick Victoria Day at the Downs in races three to five aboard Cavalletta ($15.00), Gee Linz ($23.10) and Heavenly Lioness ($12.00), for trainers Gary Danelson, Wendy Anderson and Murray Duncan, respectively.
"It was a warmin' feelin'," said Walker, who thought he'd give the Downs a try this year on the advice of fellow Jamaican exercise rider Garfield Dunkley and agent Mark (Lucky) Drabing.
Walker arrived with heavy credentials that not only included four riding titles, but also second-place finishes in the Jamaican jockey standings in 2011 and 2013, and a third-place finish in 2012. Walker's resumé also shows wins in major stakes and classic races in Jamaica, including the 2009 Caribbean Sprint Championship, the 2011 Red Stripe Mile and the 2014 2000 Guineas, aboard star horses such as Miracle Boy Ritchie, Mark My Words and Talented Tony K.
A natural talent who says he learned how to work from his mother, Karen, Walker started out at the track at the age 12 on the advice of his father, Vernan. He began riding on July 27, 2006 and won with his very first mount, Supernatural, as an apprentice, for 13-time Jamaican training champion Wayne DaCosta. He went on to win 10 races that year and then started rolling with his first of four titles.
He credits former Jamaican jockeys Wesley Henry and Andrew Ramgeet, now based in Florida and Virginia, with helping him to learn the finer points of race riding.
"It's a lot different over there," said Walker. "They ride rougher. And they won't give you any room or let you through. It's dog-eat-dog. The turns are sharper here, but the track surface is excellent, and the jockeys ride a lot cleaner. They look where they're going."
"Nobody wants anybody to get hurt," added Walker. "After the races we all have to go home to our families. I don't want to be responsible for causing any trouble and neither do any of the other guys."
You could sense that Walker felt a certain level of reciprocal respect in the local jocks' room, which probably stems not only from the talent level in the room, but also the level of experience.
During the first few days of the racing season, we watched Walker closely to see if he could adjust his riding style from one country to another. In one race in particular, he gave a horse an absolute dream trip, saving ground inside on the turn and challenging aggressively into the stretch. Then his horse went poof -- nothing in the gas tank for the last eighth of a mile -- the worst feeling in the world for a jockey, and a bettor, after a horse has received a perfect ride. Not his fault.
With only one win to show for his first 20 mounts, a less experienced jockey might easily have been discouraged into making amateur mistakes in search of victory. Like the one we thought Walker made on Victoria Day aboard Cavalletta, a turf router from Phoenix with limited dirt form and a penchant for coming from off the pace.
Walker stuck her nose into the tail end of a duel on the turn and kept it there to the stretch. He then coaxed a gutsy late run out of the five-year-old mare to prevail at the wire. Most horses in Cavalletta's position would have quit at the top of the stretch.
"She wanted to be in there," said Walker. "She was fit, ready and wanted to go. It was a short race."