By Dick Jerardi
Tony Black called Walter Reese “like a second father to me”.
And no wonder. When Black, a Parx Hall of Famer with 5,211 wins, came back to ride after “getting clean and sober in 1990,” few believed he would stay straight.
“A lot of people said ‘you’ll never stay sober, you’ll (mess) it up again,” Black remembered. “(Reese) and (Bob) Camac were the first two guys I went to and they said come to the barn, get on some horses, we’ll find something for you right away.”
They did. Black had a magnificent second act. And the jockey never forgot.
When Reese’s wife Cynthia called Black recently to tell him that her husband was in the hospital after a stroke and was not going to make it, Black went to see his friend.
“I always used to kiss him on his cheek and say ‘Walter, I love you,’” Black said.
Even though Reese was unconscious, Black greeted him like he always did.
“He made three or four sounds like he knew it was me,” Black said.
After a few days in the hospital, Cynthia brought Walter home to his beloved Timber Creek Farm in Upper Freehold Township, N.J., where he passed away.
“I’ll really miss him,” Black said. “I loved the guy.”
Black was in the first Parx Hall of Fame Class in 2011. Reese was in the second class in 2012.
Reese started training horses in 1963 and accounted for 1,530 winners in his career, with 45 percent finishing in the money.
He was the first trainer for 1991 Horse of the Year Black Tie Affair, losing the horse only because a new owner purchased him. Reese had many memorable wins, but none more so than when Pennsylvania-Bred Devil’s Honor won the 1996 Pennsylvania Derby.
After going unbeaten in his first four starts and winning them by a combined 36 lengths, Formal Gold was the 11-10 favorite that Labor Day, at what was then called Philadelphia Park. Devil’s Honor, after winning three stakes as a two-year-old and three more as a three-year-old, was 9-2.
Mike Smith rode Formal Gold; Black was on Devil’s Honor.
The inside was the place to be that day. Black, with the home track advantage, knew it. Smith did not.
“Mike Smith came to me; I was on the lead, and he thought he was going to blow by me,” Black said.
Formal Gold actually did get a head in front at the eighth pole, but Black and Devil’s Honor were not finished.
“Mike and I were talking about this when I saw him at the Pennsylvania Derby (in September),” Black said. “And he tells all the kids in the jocks’ room the story how ‘I came to him and he carried me out…and then he opens up on me.’”
Devil’s Honor won the race by three-quarters of a length. Formal Gold was 6 3/4 lengths clear of the third horse. Devil’s Honor won just one more race in 13 tries after that PA Derby. Formal Gold went on to be the fastest horse of the 1990s with Beyer speed figures of 122, 126, 124 and 125 in 1997.
“It was just such a thrill to do it for Walter and Cynthia,” Black said.
Cynthia and Walter were in, many ways, co-trainers.
“They balanced each other out,” Black said. “Cynthia would give horses the easy way, baby them and Walter would get and train them like athletes.”
Black remembers one race where he rode horribly on a Reese-trained horse and got the horse beat. He apologized to Reese.
“You know what he said to me, ‘maybe you won’t (mess) it up next time, don’t worry about it,’” Black said. “That’s exactly the kind of guy he was.”