Washington, PA — Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, Jack Killeen watched American harness racing on YouTube, passionately followed the careers of such greats as Somebeachsomewhere and Foiled Again and dreamed of coming to the U.S. to make his living as a Standardbred driver.
The 18-year-old has taken an important step to realizing that dream through a stint as a driver at The Meadows. Killeen will wrap up his first American sojourn Saturday (Dec. 8) at The Meadows when he pilots Stirling Escort from post six in race 13. First post is 1:05 p.m.
Killeen was introduced to harness racing by his father, a builder who campaigns horses at Dublin’s Portmarnock Raceway as a hobby. The younger Killeen was inspired enough to complete farrier school and begin work as a blacksmith, picking up drives where he could. The problem: For most of the year, Portmarnock races only on Sundays, hardly enough to support a full-time driver — or a full-time blacksmith.
“I shoe Standardbreds, ponies, Clydesdales — everything,” he says.
Killeen, however, saw an opportunity when he met Heather and Mike Wilder, who were in Dublin this past summer for the annual Vincent Delaney Memorial festival of races. Impressed by the sincerity of the young Irishman, the Wilders agreed to introduce him to The Meadows horsemen if he came to America.
Killeen landed in the States in mid-September, found an apartment and began helping horsemen in the mornings. They remembered it, and Killeen soon earned assignments from trainers such as Paul Corey, Kevin Johnson and Sarah Andrews. He’s made the most of those limited drives, compiling a highly respectable .245 UDR in 24 starts. He notched his first domestic win in only his sixth start.
Even more impressive than his statistics is Killeen’s poise. An 18-year-old intimidated by the situation could respond by driving too aggressively or too passively. But Killeen operates more like a veteran, leaving when he should, ducking when that seems best, keeping his horses alive for checks.
“You can’t be nervous out there. At least, I’m trying not to be nervous,” he says. “Things are different here. In Ireland, we have half-mile tracks. Here, you have tracks of different sizes, which leads to different driving styles. The slanted starting gate is very different.”
Though Killeen will return to Dublin on Monday, it isn’t lack of drives or homesickness that’s prompting the move. Rather, his application for an appropriate visa hasn’t been approved yet, so he can’t stay longer this time.
“I‘m going to miss him terribly; he’s become a part of our family,” Heather Wilder says. “I’m hoping he’ll back by the end of the year, but the visa process is tricky, and it could take longer than that for approval.”
If his visa doesn’t come through, Killeen says he might pursue one for work in Canada, where the red tape may be less thick. But he’s targeting Dec. 31 for his return to The Meadows so he can be here for the career finale of one of his YouTube heroes.
“I’d like to see that,” Killeen says. “I watched Foiled Again for so long, and I finally got to meet him here.”
On Friday, The Meadows will celebrate the 27th anniversary of the opening of its Harmar facility with daylong food and beverage specials, giveaways and contests with cash and merchandise prizes. Roger Huston and horsemen Jeremy Indof, Dan Rawlings and Mike Wilder will mingle with fans from 12 noon to 3 p.m.