Kirkpatrick & Co Presents In Their Care: For Enger, Horses Provide Refuge From Prejudice - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Kirkpatrick & Co Presents In Their Care: For Enger, Horses Provide Refuge From Prejudice

“There are some days when the horses I have in the shedrow will be my saving grace,” said Jon Enger

Jon Enger was struggling to give sturdy trainer Nevada Litfin a leg up on a horse one morning at Oaklawn Park three years ago.

An exercise rider watched with disdain before all but spitting out the words, “What's the matter, you faggot? Can't lift your boyfriend up on a f—— horse?”

Enger, now 31, had long before come to terms with his sexual orientation. The hateful episode helped him to understand that he should never allow it to hold him back in racing.

“That was the morning I told Nevada, 'Look, no matter what I do in this industry, my sexual orientation should never play a part in this barn,' “ Enger recalled. Litfin agreed, and the rider was dismissed for his offensive behavior.

That was hardly the first time Enger's sexuality was used against him. He believes it initially hurt his business from 2012-'15, when he was working to establish himself as an outrider at Canterbury Park in his native Minnesota.

“When I was ponying, oh, I got judged,” he said. “There were some people who did not want to hire me based on just who I was. But, you know, they eventually came around because my work as a pony rider stood for itself. So they were like, 'No, he's a good rider. We're going to use him.'”

Enger's father, Michael, introduced him to horses and to the sport. Michael used to take him and his sister, Danielle, to the races. They all got involved more deeply when Michael returned home one night to surprise his wife, Dorie with some news: “Honey, I bought a horse.”

Hey Cheryl was an inexpensive claiming horse that ultimately had a profound impact on Jon Enger.

“That was the beginning of me learning how to be around horses,” he said. “She was a very sweet, loving mare. Once you earned her trust, she would do anything for you. She was a great all-around first horse.”

Enger was never the best of students. High school was no four-year stint for him. “I kind of had to tack on a couple of years,” he said. “Eventually, we got it done.”

Once introduced to Hey Cheryl, horses fascinated him more than math or science classes ever had. He was 18 when he began cleaning stalls and learning about the care of horses as a summer job at Canterbury Park.

“Slowly but surely, I was all deep into horses,” he said.

Larry Donlin, one of the many trainers he has worked for, understood better than the teenager what was happening. “If you ever get this in your blood,” he told him, “you'll never leave.”

At the time, Enger was rather dismissive of the comment. “I thought it was just old-timer talk,” he said.

Now, he knows better after holding numerous positions outside of racing. In the most recent of those, he worked for Amazon as a “package fulfiller” in 2017. He made sure orders were properly filled before they were shipped.

That winter, he decided it was time for a heartfelt conversation with his parents.

“I told my mom and dad, 'You know what? I'm really not happy at Amazon. Horses are what I really love to do. I love being around them. I love being at the barn all day. I love seeing horses at the track. So I'm just going to load up my jeep and drive it to Oaklawn Park.'”

Although his parents expressed their reservations, they all knew where his heart was taking him. There would be no turning back.

Enger has led an itinerant life since then. Since arriving at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., he has made stops in Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana and now Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He has gained experience with Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. He has worked for such prominent Thoroughbred trainers as Brad Cox, Ken McPeek and, currently, Tom Amoss.

Katy Allen, an assistant to Amoss, hired him as a groom during the Oaklawn Park meet earlier this year.  His sexuality was never considered.

“Not just in this industry but the world in general is more accepting of everybody than it was, say, 40 years ago,” Allen said. “There are a lot of successful gay men in this industry.”

Allen saw qualities in Enger that give him a chance to join them as he gains experience and matures.

“I just thought he had that drive. He loves the horses,” she said. “He doesn't mind being at the barn all day. You know, that's half the battle, people wanting to show up and be there and actually wanting to be in it for the horses and not just a paycheck.”

Enger was promoted to foreman at Indiana Grand. According to Allen, he did well in that role before an urgent need arose for two grooms at Saratoga Race Course. Allen asked Enger if he and Courtney Paye would leave Indiana Grand to fill the void. Enger and Paye drove that afternoon from Indiana to Kentucky, where a COVID-19 test was done that offered a quick result. After testing negative for the virus, they packed their belongings that evening and drove to New York the following day, arriving past midnight.

“That says a lot about somebody who was willing to do something like that,” Allen said.

Wherever Enger's travels take him, his refuge is the barn. He regularly turns to the horses he cares for to comfort him. It is not uncommon to see him curled up in the stall beside one of his sleeping horses.

“There are some days when the horses I have in the shedrow will be my saving grace. They won't judge you. You need to cry, they're there for you. You need a hug, they're there for you. On an emotional level, they understand you,” said Enger, knowing the outside world can be too quick to judge and too slow to understand.

Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.

If you wish to suggest a backstretch worker as a potential subject for In Their Care, please send an email to [email protected] that includes the person's name and contact information in addition to a brief description of the employee's background.

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