By Bill Finley
Will Walden' story is a remarkable one. After battling substance abuse issues for more than a decade, he is sober and has just finished his first year as a trainer, winning with 22% of his starters. But the success of his stable extends beyond trips to the winner's circle. Walden's team is comprised of individuals who were also deeply mired in addiction and the group works together not just to produce winners but to support each other.
After an inspirational video on Walden's story produced by the TDN's Katie Petrunyak ran, the team from the TDN Writer's Room podcast presented by Keeneland wanted to hear more. Walden was this week's Green Group Guest of the Week.
“I was miserable and wanted to get clean and sober,” Walden said of some of his worst days. “And I didn't. I'd gotten kicked out of a house a few weeks prior, and I had basically resigned to the fact that I was going to die a heroin junkie one day. It's a pretty sad state to be in.”
But something finally clicked, and after working at Wendy's, where he proved to himself and others he could show up for work and be responsible, Walden, the son of WinStar President and CEO Elliott Walden, decided to fulfill his long-time dream of being a trainer. He soon found out that being around horses on a daily basis was a powerful tool that helped both he and his employees stay on course.
“It's kind of difficult to put into words what these horses do for the inside,” Walden said. “I'll put it to you this way. When these guys started working with the horses, I told them, you're not going to be able to know the day or the time. It may happen in two weeks. It may happen in a day, it may happen in four months. But that horse is going to look you in the eye and you're going to get this feeling inside that animal accepts you for exactly who you are and exactly where you're at and doesn't care about your past, doesn't care about your future, but accepts you just for who you are. And that's something that in addiction and alcoholism is a feeling that is long lost.”
Walden's interviews with the TDN were not his first. From the time he opened up his stable he's been open about his past, never shying away from the ugliest details. Why?
“I don't really like drudging up the past all the time and talking about it, but if there's a chance that there's somebody out there listening that's going through it and doesn't think that anybody can relate, doesn't think there's anybody else who's been there, doesn't think that anybody else is eating out of dumpsters or went to prison too they can hear it from me or they can hear it from one of my guys,” he said. “We were in the same spot. You wouldn't think it because of how our life looks like now and what we get to do on a daily basis. But I can promise you, we were there and there were a million hands that reached out and grabbed me when I was in the depths of it. I want to give back and help as many people as I can, because there were so many people that took time out of their day, time away from their family, away from their kids, away from their jobs, lifestyles, what have you to help rescue me. And if I can do that for just one person, it's worth it.”
On the track, Walden's stable seems headed toward bigger and better things. He started his first horses on Sept. 5, 2022 and finished the year with nine wins from 41 starters. In December, he won his first stakes race when Kate's Kingdom won the My Charmer S. at Turfway Park.
Elsewhere on the podcast, which is also sponsored by Coolmore, Lane's End, the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, XBTV and https://www.threechimneys.com/ West Point Thoroughbreds, Zoe Cadman, Randy Moss and Bill Finley discussed the remarkable safety record Santa Anita achieved in 2022 and what could soon be the return of trainer Rick Dutrow. The team also took a look at the 3-year-old colt picture and the depth of the Brad Cox stable.