Herbie Felix clutched Antrim County's bridle and spoke softly to calm him. Jeramiah Lentz stood up to his ankles in hay, tightly wrapping the legs of the winner of the $50,000 Claiming Crown Iron Horse.
Working with horses such as Antrim County at the Boys' Haven in Lexington, Ky., Felix, 18, and Lentz, 19, have found something neither ever had: direction.
Both were in Shakopee at Canterbury Park on Saturday with their horse and trainer, Jay Wilkinson, for the 10th running of the Claiming Crown, the most elite and competitive of the claimers horse events. Antrim County's 3 1/2-length victory in 1 minute, 43.09 seconds was a Claiming Crown Iron Horse record.
Attendance for the event was 10,188 and earned $2,175,818 in total handle for the seven Claiming Crown races. Last time Canterbury was host, in 2006, the event earned $2,075,167 and had 11,644 in attendance.
Standing wide-eyed back in stall 31 an hour after Antrim County's victory, Felix and Lentz fought for ways to overstate the relevance of the event, of horses, of the chance to learn.
Felix doesn't flinch.
"This," he said, "changed my life."
Both spent their childhoods in foster care, Lentz since the age of 2, when he began his shuffle through 12 different homes. Both graduated high school and neither knew what was next.
"While the kids are in the state's care, the big goal is to get them a diploma or high school equivalency, but they never touch on employment skills," Wilkinson said. "So they don't know about work ethic. They don't know how to take direction. They don't know how to get along with co-workers. What this program does is give them all that training."
Now, both speak of college, of a future in horses. They point to Wilkinson as a role model for success.
In October 2006, Wilkinson approached the directors of Boys' Haven, a nonprofit aiming to empower abused, homeless and neglected youth, with the idea of beginning an equine program to help children recently aged out of foster homes attain an employable lifestyle.
By May 2007, the first 10 members of the program had transformed 11 acres of unused land to grazing grounds and a barn, 37 feet wide and 66 feet long. They worked 11 consecutive weeks, from 7 a.m. to nearly 10 p.m., taking one day off -- Easter Sunday.
So far, seven have graduated, and one has a $29,000 job and a townhouse apartment. Wilkinson said only three or four have left the program, which now has 36 members.
Lentz first heard of the program from his social worker while he was working for the Whitney M. Young Jr. Job Corps Center in Simpsonville, Ky. On Saturdays in Simpsonville, Lentz had the chance to groom horses and jump in the harness and gallop from time to time. Now he spends at least 24 hours a week in the stables.
"Say I go back, a year back in the past," Lentz said, "If I didn't decide to go to Job Corps, I'd still probably be looking around, working for a fast food restaurant, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life."
Lentz, who has worked with Wilkinson since March, said he and Felix were chosen to accompany their trainer based on how hard they worked back in Louisville.
On Saturday, Felix played an undeniably important role in Antrim County's victory -- translating Wilkinson's instructions to their Peruvian jockey, Fernando De La Cruz: 1) There's no speed in the race. 2) Lay two or three behind the leader. 3) Be even at top of stretch -- angle out and ride hard to finish.
As Felix peers over at Antrim County, one of the horses that offers him hope and allows him to dream, he's asked if he can learn anything from the creatures he grooms, cleans and feeds.
Without hesitation, he nods.
"Yes, ma'am. Determination."