Jessica Cass of Pequot Lakes thanks her father for helping to finance her college education, even if it was not by the usual save-as-you-earn method.
A low-wage worker with health problems, Gerald Taylor told his daughter to apply for a scholarship earmarked for the children of backstretch workers at thoroughbred horse race tracks.
Backstretch employees are committed and passionate about race horses, they generally sacrifice a lot to the sport and aren't always able to fully devote themselves to their family or to maximize their income.
Cass, a student at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, wrote the required essay describing her father's involvement in racing. Today, she is $25,000 closer to her goal of teaching children.
She plans to transfer from CLC to Bemidji State University to obtain a bachelor of science degree in elementary education.
She is the second annual winner of the "Valedictorian Award," a national prize named by Team Valor, the Kentucky stable that forms partnerships to race thoroughbreds.
Jessica's father, Gerald "Jerry" Taylor, is 71 and a lifelong backstretch denizen. Two years after triple bypass surgery, he is back at the track as a horse trainer's assistant.
An orphan who found his way to the race track at age 15, Taylor made his start at the nearest hiding place and received food and shelter in return for cleaning horse stalls. He later was allowed to rub horses, which is similar to a massage required to keep the animals in top condition.
His employer was Samuel D. Riddle, breeder of Man O' War and War Admiral, two successful racers. He spent 10 years as a trainer, grooming Intent, a back-to-back winner of the San Juan Capistrano Handicap.
"He found his calling with horses and the life of a race tracker," Cass said in her essay submitted to Team Valor. "My father has devoted the last 56 years of his life to the racing industry and the horses and people he has worked with. It is his life and passion and comes before all else."
Cass, an honor student at CLC, received her award in a ceremony Aug. 3 at Saratoga Springs, the famous New York race track. She hadn't been east since age 13, hadn't seen her father for more than three years.
Cass is a 27-year-old, inner-city native. She has survived the "school of hard knocks" and displays a tenacious attitude toward achievement. After her parents' divorce, Cass endured an urban childhood, graduating from Ben Salem High School in Pennsylvania. She worked at a race track.
She cherished summers with her dad in upstate New York, where he managed horses at Brookfield Farm. Life for Taylor centered on the needs and schedules of the horses.
"I remember the seven-day-a-week schedule. I didn't realize until I was older that some parents worked five days a week," Cass said.
Her roles included working as a "pony girl" to warm up the horses before a race and escorting them in what is known as the "post parade." She was also a "hot walker," the person who helped the horse cool down after a race or workout.
Cass' childhood in the shadow of horses and race tracks had its downside. Her school had classified her as a "special education" case. But Cass managed to catch up by high school, graduating with peers in Philadelphia.
Horse racing was in her blood; she had no time for college. She worked in what is known as the "backside" or stable area of race tracks in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Florida and Colorado.
Before moving to Minnesota with Esko native Steve Cass, Jessica had worked at a horse farm and lived with her sister in Colorado. Her resum includes several hard-hat occupations uncommon for women: roofing, flooring and fighting forest fires.
She has earned credits from courses at Front Range Community College in Boulder. From Red Rocks Community College she obtained fire-fighting credentials for hazardous and high-paying work in Wyoming and other states that were ablaze.
"It took me four years to get about a year's worth of credits," she said.
"Last spring I was feeling sorry for myself, telling Dad about that in a phone call," she said. "We talk every three months or so. I told him it just seems to be taking forever to save up enough money from work to pay for school.
"He called me back the next night and told me about this scholarship, that I ought to apply."
Cass' story was chosen the best in a field of 50 or 60 essays. The rules emphasize that the judges are not looking for professional writing skills but rather a "certain quality of thought and expression in describing the involvement of a parent's life in racing."
"Dad is exceptionally proud to know that he was finally able to help me financially to pursue my education," Cass said, noting she is permitted to use the money for tuition, books and living expenses.
Even with the low tuition at CLC, it can be tough to make ends meet. Jessica and husband Steve bought a house in Jenkins and have both worked several jobs. None of their employers provide important health insurance.
The couple endured convergent schedules and commutes. "We weren't seeing each other," she said. But recent job changes and the scholarship have improved the situation.
She can take 15 credits at CLC, work part time and be home with her husband at night.
Jessica last spring sampled computer courses and began to fulfill requirements for the transfer degree. She is also taking courses helpful to a business entrepreneur. "Some day I would like to have a summer equestrian camp for inner-city kids, something with horses in the country. It was an atmosphere that kept me going when I was 11 to 13."
What was her first purchase with the scholarship money?
"A computer," Jessica said. "Education is top priority."
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