'Nothing short of incredible': Arlington backstretch children share stories in essays
Thirteen college students received scholarships from the Chicago Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation this summer after writing unusually compelling and revealing essays about their lives and their thoughts on horse racing.
The foundation is the benevolent arm of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. The scholarships go to children of workers who groom, train and care for horses in the so-called "backstretch" of Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race Course.
In previous years, the scholarship program simply asked students to write about themselves, said David McCaffrey, executive director of the ITHA.
This year, the format changed: Students were asked to pick among five specific themes. As a result, their essays "were nothing short of incredible," McCaffrey said.
"Whether it be they went to the barn in the morning to help their dad clean stalls and would get teased because they had straw in their hair or shoes, to friends they would make at school having no concept of living on the backstretch or taking care of horses ... " he said. "Their back stories are incredible."
The ITHA represents nearly 2,500 thoroughbred owners and trainers who work at Arlington and Hawthorne racecourses.
The organization's main source of funding is a share of money from horse betting. The purses amount to 5.88% of dollars wagered; the ITHA's share is 5% of that, or 0.3% of total dollars wagered, McCaffrey said.
Its foundation has provided more than 150 scholarships for children of backstretch workers since 2000. The recipients must be under 26 and in college, or college-bound. The scholarships are between $1,000 and $6,000, based on criteria such as GPA and whether the students attend a two-year or four-year trade school, community college or university.
The students can receive scholarships for multiple years, McCaffrey said.
"There is a feeling on the part of the board who oversees this, that education is one of the best things that can be provided for these people," he said. "The power and utility of education is something that ... most people in the horse industry understand. And to the extent that we can assist that in any way possible, we will."
Most of the 13 scholarship recipients are first-time college students in their families. They are majoring in a variety of subjects, including nursing, English and political science.
Their essays can be found at itharacing.com/benevolence/scholarship-essays.