SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY — The stated mission of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America in New York is to serve workers who toil behind the scenes in support of the thoroughbred racing industry at Belmont Park, Aqueduct Race Track, and Saratoga Springs Race Course.
“The New York Race Track Chaplaincy ministers to the heart and soul of the 'Backstretch' community with social service programs, recreational programs, educational opportunities, and non-denominational religious services.
“The Chaplaincy provides these extensive services with the intent of satisfying not only spiritual needs but also basic human necessities, and its unique population is served without regard to race, creed, religion, background, or social status.”
That mission is a work in progress that goes on every day, whether the horses are running or not, for New York's Chaplain, Rev. Humberto Chavez; his wife and general manager, Karen, and a staff of dedicated volunteers, many of whom are fully employed as backstretch workers.
The Race Track Chaplaincy was first organized in 1971 and was incorporated in 1972 as a tax-exempt, non-profit charitable organization. The organization opened in New York at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga in September 1986. In March, 2003, Chaplain Humberto Chavez took over the leadership in New York — a job he never thought about when he enrolled in the New York Theological Seminary.
Prior to his graduation in 1999, Chavez recalls, “It's always in the back of your mind that it's going to be a church, with pews, a steeple and some people. There'll be a choir and there'll be Sunday services and so on.
“Never in my wildest dream would I ever have thought that I would end up walking the shed rows that are the hallway of my church and the music is the music that plays out of the various boom boxes in the barn area. And my congregation is large and complex,” he said.
His congregation is composed of the 3,000-plus men and women who work on the backstretch of the three tracks, their spouses and their children. To those people, he said, he can be their priest, minister and their friend...their legal help...and, with staff, we are that beacon of light in a ministry that is so large. There is never a need too small or too large that we can't try to tackle and to assist.”
The words “with staff” are two of the most critical for Rev. Chavez. “We have 50 plus regular volunteers here at Saratoga. I say 'plus' because many get connected to us in addition to the regular members. Downstate, each race track has its own pocket of volunteers,” he said.
Basic training “comes from our end for those that have never been in racing. But, most of our volunteers come from within whether they're stuffing backpacks, giving out Thanksgiving dinners or volunteering at Christmas events,” he said.
According to Chevez, the volunteers who help make the Chaplaincy go, share equal billing with the organization's financial partners and activities.
The annual basketball game between the jockeys and the sportswriters who cover horse racing here at Saratoga results in dollars for the Chaplaincy and annually a win for the jockeys over the scribes. On the more serious side, the RTC's Saratoga Brunch is annual must-attend function that not only raises money but also honors racing's own. Kenny and Lisa Troutt of WinStar Farm were this year's honorees. Chavez is quick to happily report Mr. and Mrs. Troutt were selected “long before the Kentucky Derby” which was won — along with the Preakness and Belmont — by Justify in whom WinStar has a share.
The New York RTC, according to its director, is operated on a budget in the neighborhood of half a million dollars, “which is not a lot. Most of our overhead is very minimal. Most of the money that comes in goes right back out to the programs we deal with.”
When a program needs hands and help, Chavez puts out a 'call for action' that is rapidly answered by the volunteers. But, he is quick to express his gratitude to the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, the Jockey Club's Safety Net Foundation, the New York Racing Association and the New York Women's Foundation for their monetary assistance.
When a backstretch person in need of help approaches the Chaplaincy, they can be assured an ally is at hand. Rev. Chavez said, “My first five years, when I came in here, I made an effort to go out into the community and make ties with various advocacy (groups) and specialists. I know my limits.
“Sometimes, when you're in this type of work, you can get caught up thinking you can do everything. I've learned how to address the issue knowing where our limits are. And, from there, we obviously refer to people that are specialized — whether it's legal help, psychological or physical.”
While most of the backstretch population is male, woman and children are important to the RTC. Karen Chavez, a registered minister in the Church of the Nazarene, is in charge of those programs that are important to women. Humberto Chavez is quick to say, “It's a blessing to have her on staff because I know my limits. She can step in whether it’s a woman's or a family issue and she's well rounded in issues that revolve around life in the horse racing industry.”
As he was preparing for a new day on the Oklahoma side of Saratoga a school bus pulled up outside of his office in the Recreation Building and Rev. Chavez beamed that it was there as part of the RTC's “Summer Enrichment Programs” that care for and assist the children of backstretch workers who ship to Saratoga for the summer and for those who stay at Belmont to care for the horses staying there.
“We're blessed to do it because we have a relationship with the families. (They) entrust the Race Track Chaplaincy with their kids and that they are able to go to these camps around the Capitol Region,” Chavez said.
The common perception is that drugs and alcohol are the backstretch's two biggest problems. When a problem with either appears on the RTC radar, Chavez and his volunteers are on it both directly and with assistance from other organizations within the racing community.
Rev. Chavez said, “With alcoholism and drugs, we work hand-in-hand with the Backstretch Employees Service Team (BEST) which handles the substance abuse and other physical — healthwise — issues.
He notes drugs are “More of a cultural issue and that's sometimes harder to deal with than with alcoholism. And that's hard. Outside communities deal with it. We try to help throughout the process.”
He then points with pride saying, “We have had a great deal of success with individuals who have moved on to become great fathers again and understood the need that they get better again. It's complex. But, we're working our way through it to assist and inform people that it is not where they should be.”
When asked to look into the RTC's future, Rev. Chavez muses, “You name it. Life is still life. There will continue to be life for this generation and the next generation. (There will be) different type of issues, different type of problems and different types of habits.” He then emphasizes, “But we will still be here.”
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