05/25/2004 11:00PM

Walker may be nation's first black head starter


NORTH RANDALL, Ohio - Although records are not kept on such matters, Rick Walker, the newly named head starter at Thistledown, is likely the first black person to hold that position in U.S. racing history. If Walker is indeed the nation's first black starter, it will be the third time that Thistledown has made history by elevating a black man into an official's position.

The first was Charles Reed, who went to work in the racing secretary's office in 1964 and became the nation's first black racing official when he was promoted to placing judge in 1982. He worked in that capacity until 1989.

In 1986, Darryl Parker became the nation's first black steward. Parker served as a steward until 1999, and presently is employed as an inspector for the Ohio State Racing Commission at River Downs. His son DeShawn has been the leading rider for three of the last four meetings at Mountaineer Park.

"I think it is great for Rick and for racing - he has earned the chance," Parker said. "Thistledown management has proven that there still are opportunities, and hopefully other tracks will follow suit."

The starter's job became available when Rick Ketring decided to retire to spend more time with his family.

Walker, a 39-year-old native of Cleveland, grew up in a racing family. His father, Charles, and four uncles all have been trainers here, and his dad and his uncle Earl still race locally.

Rick Walker began cleaning tack and walking horses at age 9 and gradually began rubbing horses. When he graduated from high school, he went to New York and worked as a groom for trainer Rusty Arnold.

For the next 10 years, Walker stayed with Arnold while traveling on the New York, Florida, and Kentucky circuits.

In 1994, Walker decided to come back home. His younger brother Chuckie was working on the gate crew and helped him get a job. Three years ago, Rick Walker was promoted to assistant starter.

He and Dana, his wife of 4 1/2 years, have two children, Sharae and Aaron.

"I would like to thank my brother for getting me the job, and also thank the Thistledown management for giving me the opportunity," Walker said. "I know that I have a very good starting-gate crew, and we will try very hard to justify management's faith in us."

Bill Couch, Thistledown's director of racing, said, "Rick is very horse-oriented, and he enjoys the game. I believe he'll do an excellent job, because he gets along great with horsemen and he understands what they are trying to do."