by JIM WELLS
Put aside your handicapping instincts for one race on Saturday and scream yourself hoarse for Antrim County. Never mind that he’s the chalk in the $50,000 Claiming Crown Iron Horse and might not provide enough in change to plug the parking meter for an hour.
Forget for just this race on Saturday that finding the right combination for a nice exacta means anything. Forget about making a buck. If you can’t do that, then make your wager and root for Antrim County anyway.
Root for this horse because he helps keep kids off the street in Louisville, Ky. Root for him because he’s teaching these kids with parents who abused them or with no parents at all how to care for themselves. Root for this son of Giant’s Causeway because he keeps certain youngsters away from the crack dealers and safe from the adults who sexually or physically and emotionally abused them.
Antrim County is a horse who cares and has people who care about him. Antrim Country is a life-changing horse, able to do what human beings sometimes cannot. This horse just might be able to heal hearts and mend damaged psyches, to restore a youngster’s spirit and faith in a world that previously has done just the opposite.
In actuality, Antrim Country is part of the equine program at Boys Haven in Louisville, founded in the 1940s by Father James Maloney along the same lines as Boys Town, a place to help abused and neglected young men and women.
The equine program was the brainchild of a retired Louisville police officer who trains the horse and presented the idea to the Boys Haven board in October of 2006. “I never thought in a million years that it would fly,” he said.
Jay Wilkinson is the trainer and retired cop who got this idea off the ground. There are 23 acres at Boys Haven devoted to this program. A 12-stall barn was built at a cost of $110,000 in March of 2007. There are 36 youngsters, six of them girls, in the program, which already has sent seven graduates who previously had no visible means of support into the thoroughbred industry as grooms, hot-walkers or exercise riders. “One kid is making $29,000 a year now,” Wilkinson said. He had never made a cent before. “Now he has his own townhouse and pays his own bills.”
Wilkinson worked as a part-time volunteer for 10 years at Boys Haven. He went to work full time at the facility when he retired from the police force eight years ago. He knows kids and what makes them tick.
He figured that matching kids up with horses might work wonders. There are 36 kids enrolled in the program, six of them girls. Not all of them will wind up rubbing horses or cleaning stalls. Wilkinson figures that the discipline of the stables will help them in any endeavor they attempt. “They have to get up in the morning at 6 a.m. and we work until 6 p.m.,” he explained. The discipline required to care for a horse will be a benefit in any occupation.
Wilkinson said that 750 kids will leave foster care this year in Kentucky. Only 150 of them will have the wherewithal to attend college. The other 600 will enter the community without family support. “A lot of them will end up on the streets or in homeless shelters or prison,” he said. “If we can help even a small number of those it’s worth the effort.”
Wilkinson started out as a harness trainer and driver in 1983 but abandoned the standardbreds after Churchill Downs purchased Louisville Downs in 1990. “I still had a ways to go until retirement so I didn’t have time to travel the (standardbred) circuit,” he said. He switched to thoroughbreds.
In the years he spent on the backside, Wilkinson saw numerous kids who came off the streets to find productive lives in the stables at Churchill Downs. That provided the idea he presented to the Boys Haven board two years ago.
Originally, the horses were worked over the fields on the Boys Haven acreage devoted to the equine program. Churchill Downs offered some stalls after learning of the program and some of the work is now done there.
“You know there are 100,000 jobs in the thoroughbred industry in Kentucky that these kids can fill. There is a future for them there,” Wilkinson said.
An ownership group of eight Louisville business men claim the horses for Boys Haven. The program now has 10 horses. The youngsters in the program then receive 10 percent of whatever the horses earn, providing them with money to buy personal items for their apartments at Boys Haven.
When Boys Haven lost its first horse, Stanton, in a claim, the group used the money to purchase Antrim’s County.
The horse is named for a small county in Kentucky. Wilkinson claimed him at Churchill Downs in May, figuring he might be a good one because veteran trainer Bernie Flint had claimed him, lost him and claimed him back. “If Bernie claims a horse more than once, he must have seen something,” Wilkinson said.
Antrim County won two starts for his new owners at Churchill Downs. “Then we shipped him to Arlington Park and he ran third for $50,000 on July 9,” Wilkinson said. “He’s sort of a stalking horse. He’ll run third or fourth. He’s a true two-turn horse and I think the race on Saturday ( 1 1/16 miles) sets up nice for him. There’s some decent speed in there.”
Antrim has a local connection. He is from the Fappiano mare Bright Feather. Fappiano was out of the Frances Genter Stable, which had a rich thoroughbred legacy and owned several great sires and racehorses, including 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled. Genter, who lived in Bloomington, is in the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.
Antrim County has a record of six wins, four seconds and six thirds from 36 career starts with earnings of $156,780. He has won four of his eight starts in 2008 with one third.
Antrim County will have two of his grooms at his side in the paddock Saturday. Jeremiah Lentz, 19, and Herbie Felix,18, accompanied the horse. Lentz is from Louisville. Felix is from Lexington. The other 34 kids in the class at Boys Haven have a cookout planned for Saturday and will watch the race on television.
You can imagine the excitement they will feel as they watch their horse run at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., a place many of them had never heard of before. It might as well be the moon, but if you join the chorus for this horse on Saturday and hope for him with your heart and soul, you just might hear the sound of youngsters screaming their lungs out in Louisville, Ky.
Or think you do.