Community October 4, 2018

Swinging a Big Rope

Jim Walker and his national champion racehorse Zoomin For Spuds


Jim Walker, Sr., can spot a sure thing at birth, but he’s willing to wait for the proof to be revealed in its own time, mostly. And in the last decade, and as a result of 40 years of wins and losses, the patient patriarch, 86, has nurtured a pair of unlikely horse racing candidates to national glory.

“Some people, everything they touch just seems to turn out right,” Walker said. “But this means more because we worked for it.”

Walker is always gentlemanly, but not always conventional. It is true he dressed up a 14-year-old boy to look 16 so he could enter the chariot races in Elko, Nev. But Walker had known Monty Arrossa since he was born to Pete Arrossa, a winning chariot racer. He knew when the young Arrossa said to him, “Jim, I’ve gotta be in a race,” that the kid with the quiet way with horses was right, and that he was born ready. And Arrossa won, launching a career as a champion racer and trainer.

Jockey Jesus Rios Ayala rides Zoomin for Spuds to victory in the Vessels Maturity (2017). Photo by Scott Martinez / Los Alamitos Race Course.

And five years ago, when Walker was alerted to his driveway by some passersby at his ranch at the south entrance of Bellevue that one of his colts was on the wrong side of the fence, dangerously close to Highway 75, “I knew as soon as I saw he’d jumped the fence at 4 months old he had somewhere more important to be.” And Zoomin For Spuds, the homebred colt Walker hand delivered into the world, was on track to being a national champion racehorse with Arrossa as his trainer.

“My horse and myself are the national champions,” Walker said, holding the issue of Quarter Horse Track magazine which featured a closeup of his sparkling eyes and mile-wide grin captured at the moment of the win in 2016. “Idaho has never had a national champion. Ever. And for us to come out of ‘Hoboken’ Bellevue, Idaho. It shows the little guy has a chance.”

Since Walker put Shoshone-born Arrossa and the horse together, Spuds’ winnings have dominated an entire room of the Walker home, weighing down the indoor hot tub cover with buckles and brass, ribbons and trophies collected on the journey to winning the highest title in quarter horse racing.

In July, Spuds beat his rival, another Idaho-bred horse, and secured the Supreme Race Horse title, which recognizes a racing American quarter horse that during its career earns $500,000 or more. He is the only horse in the U.S. to win six stakes races and the first in Idaho’s history to take the Grade 1 Champion of Champions. Spuds qualified a second time and lost, but is taking an unprecedented third run for the title again this winter. A win will take Walker over his goal of $1 million for the horse.

“I’ll be honest with you, this horse has been a real eye opener for me,” Arrossa said. “I always felt I could compete on a national level, but Jim has shown us all that we can hold our heads as high as anyone.”

Walker chuckled at the thought that his most ardent competition is a doctor with a 153-mare operation to his two-mare show.

“It’s incredible what Jim has been able to do,” Arrossa said. “This is literally a two-mare, two-man operation,” he said while watching horses run at his home base in Jerome. “But he’s got goals for his horses, and when he has a vision, he knows that will include some setbacks, and he’s had them, but he stays with it.”

“All you are entitled to is what you can dream about,” Walker said of his tenacity. “Surround yourself with people who give a damn, or it’s going to be a mess.”

Jim Walker with the Track magazine, on which he was the cover feature. Photo by Kirsten Shultz

A horse named Captain was one he first garnered in his corner. Walker bought the horse when he was 8 years old using money he’d earned scooping all manner of farm animal poop. The next person who gave a damn—for the next 65 years—was JoAn, who became his first documented sure thing shortly after she declared in high school that she was going to marry a cowboy. Walker swept through with a proposal for the sophomore on his way to answer the draft into the Army, which he hated, but to which he gave his all.

“I wasn’t going to be a professional, but I was honorably discharged.”

The pair of Leos then navigated a steady life path of work, family, horses, and moves around the Northwest while working in quarries and concrete before settling in the Wood River Valley in the early 1970s. Walker founded Walker Sand & Gravel and began breeding his few mares so he could have a hand in the chariot racing he was too tall to ride for, which is where Pete Arrossa came in.

Over the years, Walker, pal Bruce Butler, and Ted Uhrig ran races in Richfield and even at the base of what is now Rotarun Ski Area. In the last decade, Walker has had some other quarter-mile, money-making horses, including Time for Jesse Lee, who made an impressive run before returning to chariot race competition.

As Walker has matured over the decades, he clearly has honed an admirable ability to get kicked in the teeth, dust off and go back at it, which has paid off at the track and in his personal life. After raising their children Jimmy, Jeana, and Jerry here, and through grandchildren, he and JoAn have had to
cope with great loss: both Jeana and Jerry died in separate incidents a few years apart.

It is said that nothing heals the inside of a human like the outside of a horse, and Walker’s passion for seeing his horses run helped divert some of the grief.

Spuds held up a light for the Walkers when he jumped that fence, and Walker provided the energy to keep it going. He basically banked a college tuition for the baby by signing him up for the American Futurity before he’d even mastered a straight trot.

“I loved his confidence in the horse,” Arrossa said. “It’s the same exact confidence he has always shown me. He made me think like a champion, and now we are champions.”

“I’ll take luck over skill any day, but it
all starts with the bloodlines,” Walker said
of his intuition for success. “But then you have to be patient. You never know what you’re going to get, but when I believe in something or someone, all my confidence goes with that.”

Optimism. Flexibility. Resilience. It is a success trifecta, just like Walker, Arrossa
and Spuds.

“I have to have something that’s a challenge,” Walker said. “I started at the bottom and slowly built up a foundation in my work and home life and it worked. This is a tough business, and you’re going to take a butt kicking every few weeks.

“But you have to keep yourself running with the best to stay with the best. I never get so smart I can’t take some advice, and I don’t mind criticism if its fair … I don’t know if it’s guts or stupidity, but I do know, when it’s going well, you gotta swing a big rope.”

This article appears in the Fall 2018 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.