by Jim Wells
When you ask him a question, be prepared for an answer that is not black and white or yes or no, that is somewhat involved and complex yet easy to track nonetheless.
Then again, portraying a lifetime in the horse business is not a simple task, and it might help to know that Jack Walsh was first and foremost a highly respected defense attorney during a long and distinguished career. When is the last time you got a simple answer from an attorney?
Walsh comes closer than any, although there are plenty of detours and excursions along the way that prevent an absolutely clean, straight story line. Still, the motives in his life narrative are of the purest and simplest form, beginning with the love of his children Laura, Julie, Jackie, and Kathy, his grandchildren, and of the equine world itself.
The start was basic, a Shetland pony in 1965 for three-year-old Laura, the first of the four daughters. By the time she turned eleven, their farm between Stillwater and Somerset included an indoor riding arena, 180 by 60 feet in size, a fixture still standing on the property, and Laura was riding in quarter horse shows.
Let’s skip ahead a few years to when twenty or more quarter horse broodmares occupied the premises _ a spendy venture, Walsh called it, and an enterprise that ended in 1979, when he sold the mares and auctioned sixty head of quarter horses he bred.
He also lectured on Equine Law at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls for some seventeen years. Somewhere along that timeline a fellow named D. Wayne Lukas, who once trained quarter horses near Rochester while teaching in LaCrosse, gave a talk at the University and paid a visit to the Walsh farm afterward. Walsh’s enterprise was well known to the serious practitioners of quarter horse racing in the area. Lukas was also in the midst of making the switch to thoroughbreds around that time, and Walsh would follow suit with the opening of Canterbury Downs in 1985, running a horse named Una’s Friend, his first thoroughbred, trained by Dave Crandall of White Bear Lake.
“The first time we ran, I got a check,” Walsh, 86, recalled, “and I remember thinking, how easy is this?”
Time would disabuse him of such notions but not deter him from the business of racing or his whole-hearted involvement in the industry. He tried cases before the American Quarter Horse Racing Association in Amarillo, Texas, and represented more than 100 horsemen before the Minnesota Racing Commission.
The best thoroughbred he bred? “Maybe Shot of Somerset,” he said. “A pretty nice horse.”
The thoroughbreds he bred all carried the name of Somerset, homage, of course, to the nearby Wisconsin village. “There was a period of time when Jeff Hilger, Curt Sampson, Dennis Strohkirch and myself were some of the biggest breeders in the state, but not anymore,” he said.
Times change and people change, but Walsh has stayed involved from the start, in many ways. He served on the board of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association for several years and the local chapter of the HBPA as well, a body of which he is currently serving out his term as president.
Hilger, a retired breeder, HBPA president and member of Canterbury Park’s Hall of Fame, attests to the respect Walsh has in the legal field with the following story:
Hilger was on jury duty in Washington County in the early 1990s and overheard two men debating a point when one of them bellowed, ‘who do you think you are, Jack Walsh?’
Walsh’s easy-going style during conversation betrays the hypnotic effect he must have had on the men and women in the jury box with his sonorous, baritone voice. Yet the more salient point is that he comes across as a good-natured, honorable person seeking only justice, and people who know him well say he is absolutely that. “In the thirty years I’ve known Jack, I have not heard a person say a bad word about him,” Hilger added.
Raised on the East Side of St. Paul, he attended Cretin High School, the College of St. Thomas and then the William Mitchell College of Law.
He was also a skater, for the St Paul, Minneapolis and University Club figure skating organizations from 1951 to 1954.
Walsh, at one time, had a pasture full of cattle at his farm, too, but it is his annual bison feed the Saturday after Thanksgiving for which he is noted, with more than 100 invitees often attending.
He was absolutely dumbstruck upon hearing he would be included as one of this year’s Canterbury Hall of Fame inductees. “It was the furthest thing from my mind,” he said, “to be included alongside people like the Sampsons, and the Schenians and so many others.”
Then again, if more supporting evidence is necessary, there is this comment Hilger once made to Walsh: “I’ve never known anyone who spent more money in horse racing and made less than you.”