Walden Racing Gives Fresh Start to An Improbable Team

Clear The Air gives Will Walden Racing its first win of 2023 Coady

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Kyle Berryman has a lot to look forward to as he opens a new chapter in 2023. He recently celebrated six months of sobriety and, two weeks ago, his boss Will Walden asked him if he would be interested in running the stable's shedrow.

“It's just a title, but it's pretty cool,” Berryman said after wrapping up a busy morning at Turfway Park. “I only have maybe five months of experience working with horses right now, so I'm still brand new and still learning a lot.”

He may shrug off those recent achievements, but Berryman's long days at Turfway this winter are worlds away from the life he was living when the calendar turned over last year.

Berryman is a member of the improbable team that makes up Will Walden Racing. The group consists of six men recovering from substance addiction. They all have their eyes on the winner's circle, but the overarching goal of the team is to encourage each other in remaining sober.

“There is no shedrow if this group of guys makes a decision to go do what they used to do,” Berryman explained. “There would be no Will Walden Racing. Sobriety is our number one thing and the care of these horses is number two. They wouldn't get the care they needed if we weren't sober.”

Will Walden, the 32-year-old son of former Grade I-winning trainer and WinStar's President and CEO Elliott Walden, went through his own painful battle with drug addiction and alcohol abuse. After spending nearly a year at the Shepherd's House, a drug treatment facility in Lexington, Walden began laying out the plans for a substance recovery-based racing barn.

The stable launched in April last year and has steadily added new members–both human and equine–since. Taylor Made's School of Horsemanship, a program designed to work with people recovering from substance abuse and teach them a new vocation in the Thoroughbred business, has sent several graduates interested in furthering their career in racing on to Walden.

“It's about giving guys a second chance,” said Walden. “It's for guys who were in the system, who served prison time, who came from sordid backgrounds and have had their tails kicked in by life. When I got sober, [racing] was all I knew and is what I've always loved. I couldn't think of anything better than to be able to give this to guys I met through something so ugly and so heinous.

“Most of these guys have never touched a horse before, but because of where they came from, they have a hunger for a purpose and a drive for life, and these horses give that to them.”

Eight months after saddling his first starter, Walden closed out the year with promising statistics for 2022. From 41 starts, the stable maintained a 21% winning percentage and ran in the money in nearly half its starts. In December, they brought home a major victory when Kate's Kingdom (Animal Kingdom) gave them their first stakes win in the My Charmer S. at Turfway Park.

While the win was a significant personal achievement for Walden, it meant even more to be able to watch the celebration unfold amongst his team.

“These guys were homeless, they were in jails–myself included,” Walden said. “We've been in some really hopeless places, some really tough spots. But the day that Kate's Kingdom won, they were on top. That day they had the victory. That day they were the champions.”

Walden said that Kate's Kingdom, who was purchased for $400,000 out of the Fasig-Tipton Digital Flash Sale in November by Stephen Screnci, remains in training and is pointing for an upcoming stakes at Turfway on January 14.

Kate's Kingdom's success is doubly special because the 5-year-old is owned by a partnership that includes Frank Taylor. To help Walden get his stable off its feet last year, Taylor formed Ready Made Racing–a pinhook-to-race venture that provided Walden with his 10 original trainees.

Walden's stable has grown so rapidly since it first launched that they are now transitioning away from relying on Ready Made Racing as its sole client and officially transferring into Will Walden Racing. With 15 horses currently stabled at Turfway, they're steadily adding in new owners like Cypress Creek Equine, Elliott Logan's TEC Racing and Three Diamonds Farm.

“These [owners] are willing to put in their time and money to back us when not a lot of people would,” Walden explained. “But our goals are big in this game. We're not out here for any participation trophies. We want to be the best. We hope to accrue more horses, but we're not really worried about that now. We're grateful for the 15 we have.”

Tyler Maxwell is an integral member of Walden's team. Maxwell grew up out West riding cutting and sorting horses and now serves as Walden's assistant and exercise rider. The pair met at the Shepherd's House and after they both completed the program, Walden invited his friend to join him in starting up a stable.

“Never in a million years did I think that I'd be riding for living,” said Maxwell, who has been sober for two years. “I had never ridden Thoroughbreds before and I really didn't know anything, but I have come a long way and it's because of Will. I never would have done this if I didn't trust him.”

Maxwell added that he considers Walden to be a brother first and an employer second.

“Some days that gets a little quirky,” he said with a wry grin. “But God has put me in his life and him in mine for a reason.”

Walden's team is more than just a collection of co-workers. The group is working and living together during the Turfway meet, but the bond they share runs much deeper than their admiration for the horses they care for. Along with Will, Tyler and Kyle, the team includes Scott, who has been with them for almost two months, as well as Mike and Nate, who both joined the group two weeks ago.

“These guys are coming to us from addiction or alcoholism and they see all these different walks of life and all these different lengths of sobriety that come together to form our team,” Walden explained. “We enjoy each other's company. We enjoy each other's mentorship. We enjoy this journey that life is. Where I used to be addicted to how I felt every single minute of the day, now I can walk into the barn and take a deep breath, let the slack out of my shoulders and just enjoy what is in front of us today.”

There's an unmistakably light atmosphere in Walden's barn at Turfway and the conditioner said that the horses have responded to it.

“What you think, they feel,” he explained. “So if you're walking around with a low head worried about yourself and how miserable your life is, you're going to pass that on to these horses. If you keep things light and positive and jubilant, that energy passes on to them. If you walk down our shedrow at any given time, these horses aren't sitting in the back of their stalls with their ears pinned back. They're out there bobbing their heads and looking for attention.”

“The energy and love that we have for these horses is contagious,” added Maxwell. “And they carry it out there on the track.”

Last week, the Will Walden Racing team got its first win of the year with Clear the Air (Ransom the Moon), who broke his maiden at second asking on Friday while carrying the Cypress Creek Equine silks.

When they're not busy at the barn, Walden places an emphasis on furthering the education of each member of his team. Recently, the group began taking off-track field trips to learn about various aspects of the industry. Their first outing was to Jonabell Farm, where they visited the Darley stallions.

“We don't want to bring them onto the racetrack and say, 'This is it for you,'” Walden explained. “We want to encourage these guys to pursue their dreams in whatever facet of the industry, if it even is this industry, that they want to be involved in.”

While Walden aims to maintain a recovery-based stable even as his list of employees grows, his goals for the operation go beyond just the members of his team. He hopes that their barn can be a safe haven for people on the backside who carry struggles similar to the ones he and his team have gone through.

“Nobody wants to go around and talk about their alcoholism and addiction,” he said. “But if people know we're here and they know we're open and willing to talk about it, maybe they come in and voice what they're going through.”

During his first year in the industry, Maxwell has found a lifelong passion for the sport and for sitting on the back of a Thoroughbred.

“Horses have definitely played a big part in my recovery,” he said. “On the days that it was hard for me to find God, horses were there to talk to. Some people probably think I'm crazy because I'm sitting there talking to a horse, but these horses are intuitional.”

While he could easily further his career by finding another job, Maxwell said that Walden's barn is where he belongs.

“It's not about me anymore,” he said. “It's about these guys coming in and watching that spark come inside.”

Maxwell stays with Walden's team for people like Kyle Berryman, who made a commitment to living and working alongside people who are also recovering from substance addiction during the first year of his sobriety.

“Experience is the greatest teacher,” Berryman explained. “Chances are that Will and Tyler have been through what I'm going through. We all share this common bond.”

While the encouragement of his teammates has been key to Berryman's sobriety over the past six months, so too has been the connection he has formed with the horses.

“The bond I share with them is like no other,” he said. “If you really don't feel like dealing with humans that day, you go in and start grooming a horse and I know they're listening. I can feel it. I can see it in their eyes. These horses, they rely on us. I take pride in that. When you take one up to the paddock, there's that minute where I'm thinking of nothing but what is going on right in that moment. That's not how my past has been. It's been ten miles in the future or ten miles in the past. But I feel like with this, I can finally feel like I can be in the moment, and that's precious to me.”

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