Walden goes to Good Book for racing cue

Trainer: Elliott Walden, who will send Menifee into tomorrow's Preakness, keeps his temper under control and the pressures of his trade in perspective with the help of religion.

May 14, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Elliott Walden thumbs through the collection of hand-printed notes from Scripture he keeps tucked in his wallet, searching for the right one. It escapes him at first because there are so many. Then, finally, success.

"Proverbs 21: 31," Walden says brightly. " `The horse is made ready for the day of the battle, but the victory rests with the Lord.'

"That's awesome. That's the way it will be on Saturday. All we can do is get him ready for the battle."

When Walden takes Menifee into tomorrow's 124th Preakness, the up-and-coming trainer will lean on the wisdom of the biblical Solomon for bottom-line perspective. Menifee, the 5-2 favorite, is ready. The rest, Walden reasons, is in the hands of God. And Walden says he will abide with whatever the rest brings.

It wasn't always that way. The son of respected Kentucky horseman Ben Walden Sr., who died last September, Walden, 36, has racing in his blood and, more often than not, fire in his eyes. Like his horses, he is extremely competitive. So competitive that once, upon losing a photo finish to a horse trained by Billy Mott, Walden heaved a pair of binoculars. Hard.

"Broke them in a thousand pieces," he said the other day, sitting along the shedrow on the backside of Pimlico Race Course.

"I can get short, irritable. I have a temper. It's because I'm so competitive."

Losing used to bring out the worst in him. That was before he listened to jockey Pat Day's Christian testimony in 1992 at a businessman's luncheon in Lexington, Ky. Day's moving speech struck a chord that still resonates in Walden.

"Pat gave his testimony," Walden said, "and I decided then and there I would accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior. I wanted to allow him to take control of my life.

"That put things in perspective. The balance is not hanging on winning and losing, even though that's very important. There is more to life."

Day, who will be aboard Menifee tomorrow, didn't learn of the impact he had until Walden's mother wrote him a thank-you letter soon after the speech. But Day has since come to appreciate the dramatic change that resulted.

"Elliott is still a fierce competitor," Day said. "[But] there's a radical change in the way he conducts himself and the way he carries himself.

"I've ridden for him quite often. The way he handles winning and losing is significantly different. He's a humble winner and a gracious loser."

Especially meaningful to Walden was the example Day set when he finished second in the Kentucky Derby three years running, from 1988 to 1990. Day finally won racing's most prestigious event in 1992.

After his first two near-misses, Day quoted Romans 8: 28 ("We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose") in his postmortem.

"The third time, a guy from the press says, `You're not going to rely on Romans 8: 28 again, are you?' " said Walden. "Pat said, `Absolutely.'

"Seven years later, I'm relying on the same thing."

That's because for two consecutive years, Walden has finished second in the Derby with Victory Gallop and Menifee. Victory Gallop also finished second in last year's Preakness before winning the Belmont.

"If I never have another horse that gets there, I can handle it," Walden said. "If I never win the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, I know I've done my best."

Walden sees a broader mission now, one that he talks about often at the weekly Bible study he and fellow trainer Bill Million conduct in Louisville.

"We've been talking about God in the workplace," Walden said, "and our workplace is so unique as far as a Christian goes. Some people say, `How can you profess to be a Christian and be in an environment where gambling is prevalent and other vices go on?'

"That's the beauty, not of religion, but of Jesus Christ and what his ministry stood for. He came to save the sinners. There's a great need to help people on the backside. Trainers, jockeys, grooms. They're hurting.

"Three people in our Bible study were addicted to drugs or alcohol in the last year and changed their lives. They didn't change because of the Bible study, but it gives those people who want to change encouragement and support."

And it gives Walden lasting peace in the middle of racing's storm.

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