A dispute last weekend that left the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration without a champion for the first time in its 68-year history in part revolves around Hamilton County Election Commissioner Mike Walden, whose stallion was a favorite to win.
Mr. Walden said show officials and participants misunderstood his offer of $10,000 to each of three trainers whose horses remained eligible after federal inspectors disqualified his horse, Private Charter, and five others. The inspectors said they found signs of soring, a banned practice using chemical burns or cuts to exaggerate the breed’s naturalhigh-stepping gait, according to The Associated Press. Horses in walking horse events are judged by their gait.
Mr. Walden, whose Chattanooga-based security firm has a $730,142-a-year contract to guard the Hamilton County Courthouse and offices, has been suspended from walking horse shows and corporate sponsorships for two years. In an apology posted Sunday on the Web site of theWalking Horse Report, a Shelbyville, Tenn.-based trade publication, Mr. Walden wrote that his intention was to build unity in what he saw as a move to boycott the championship over "unfair subjective treatment by the inspectors."
"I made that offer because I was led to believe by several trainers they did not want to show, not to stop them from showing," Mr. Walden wrote. But Chip Walters, a spokesman for the Celebration, said board members voted Thursday to suspend Mr. Walden from participating as an exhibitor, owner or Celebration corporate sponsor for two years.
"While Mr. Walden’s motives may have been congruent with a published statement he madeafter the fact, the perception of his actions was not in the best interest of the Celebration or the Tennessee Walking Horse industry," according to a statement on the Celebration’s Web site announcing the suspension. The board also voted to award first-place prize money of $15,000 to each of the three qualifying horses.
Mr. Walden, who served as campaign manager for former Hamilton County Sheriff John Cupp’s unsuccessful re-election bid last month, could not be reached Thursday for comment. At least one horse owner whose trainer was offered money by Mr. Walden told The Tennessean he considered the offer a bribe.
"I think if somebody offers you $10,000 not to show ... in my book, that’s kind of a bribe," Curtice McCloy, of Norman, Okla., told the Nashville newspaper. In his published apology, Mr. Walden said he was trying to help trainers he thought were interested in boycotting the show. "My understanding was the trainers did not want to show and wanted to stand united," he wrote. "I spoke to the (three) trainers and told them I would replace the money; all three declined."
Saturday’s championship run was to be the finale of the 11-day Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville, but the event ended abruptly after the disqualifications. Celebration officials said they canceled the grand championship event because the three horses that remained qualified were withdrawn by the trainers and because state troopers warned they could not control the crowd.
That version of events was disputed by the trainers, who said they weren’t consulted, and the state troopers, who said they never expressed concern about crowd control, according to The Associated Press.
This is not the first time allegations of money have arisen at the Celebration. Allegations of bribes from a trainer to a judge surfaced after the 1997 Celebration. The trainer was fined $25,000 and the judge $20,000 in a 1999 settlement that contained no admission or denial of the charges.
Ken Blankenship, Hamilton County director of purchasing, said theWalking Horse Celebration events would have no effect on the county’s contract with Walden Security, which has branch offices in Knoxville, Nashville and Atlanta.
"Our contract is with his company, not with him personally," Mr. Blankenship said.
County election commissioners are appointed by the Tennessee Election Commission. State Election Coordinator Brook Thompson said the five-member state board can remove county election commissioners for cause.
"Whether they want to review this is their call and their decision to make," Mr. Thompson said.
In July, then-Hamilton County Sheriff candidate Billy Long and Democratic Party Chairman Stuart James criticized what they called Mr. Walden’s conflicts of interest in his roles as election commissioner, Sheriff Cupp’s campaign manager and contracted vendor for county building security.
The security contract was approved by the County Commission, and election officials said there was nothing illegal about an election commissioner serving on a political campaign. Neither Mr. James nor Sheriff Long could be reached Thursday for comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...