By Amanda Duckworth
The thousands of men and woman who care for race horses on a daily basis are widely regarded as unsung heroes of the sport, but it remains easy to forget that the life of a backstretch worker can often be a transient and lonely one. However, most racetracks offer both practical and spiritual support through chaplaincy programs. The one in place at Keeneland, which opened Friday for its spring meet, is a perfect example.
The words “racetrack chaplain” may lead one to think of John 3:16 crackling over the speakers throughout the barns, but the job goes far beyond knowledge of the Bible. It also takes an understanding of the human spirit and the realities of paperwork.
“The most common question I am asked is, ‘What does a chaplain do at a racetrack?’” said Dean Carpenter, Keeneland’s chaplain. “I tell them to come on over, and we can talk about it for a week. People don’t realize how far this office extends.”
Carpenter, who has been in his current role for about two years, offers the quip with an easy smile. He’s also quick to deflect any credit from himself, preferring to give it to the Lord, Keeneland, the supportive local community, and his assistant, Diana Varon.
While technically Carpenter and Varon are there to help anyone working at Keeneland or the nearby Thoroughbred Training Center, the vast majority of their time is devoted to the backstretch workers. However, neither of them ended up in their roles following a traditional path.
About six and a half years ago, Carpenter began working at Keeneland not as a chaplain but as a HVAC/plumbing technician. He eventually left when he was offered another job, but shortly thereafter, he received a phone call.
“I got an intriguing job offer with the city of Lexington, so I left for five months,” Carpenter said. “Then, I got news that the chaplain here, Bobby Aldridge, had announced his retirement. Keeneland called me knowing I had been going to courses for ministry for 10 years. They wanted to offer me the position, and I accepted.
“I didn’t know going through all the barns and familiarizing myself with the grounds was God’s way of preparing me for this role. I can’t imagine trying to learn the grounds of Keeneland and this position at the same time.”
A native of Colombia, Varon was a dental assistant before turning to the ministry. She began at Keeneland in December 2013 and also works for the Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund.
“I believe every single day God wants me here,” she said. “Some of the workers can’t speak English, so they come to me. The female workers sometimes feel more comfortable coming to me. We are a 24/7 operation. We are on call all the time. This position is priceless, though. Nothing in the world can give us more joy than seeing someone with renewed hope who is taking care of themselves.”
Duties and Devotion
The obvious parts of the job are most noticeable when the race meets are going on in April and October. Carpenter will deliver morning devotion over the intercom, there are chapel services on the grounds, and he will have devotion with the jockeys every day before first post.
It is what happens constantly behind the scenes, however, that makes the role of racetrack chaplain unique. Carpenter and Varon provide a number of services that go well beyond the spiritual. Just some of their duties include helping organize English as a Second Language classes; scheduling free health and welfare screenings; working with state and local agencies; making referrals for immigration status; providing clothing, toiletries and food; and hosting social activities.
“It’s a tough life on the backside, so we are put in place for a number of things people don’t realize we do,” said Carpenter. “Sometimes people just need someone to talk to, and sometimes they need help shipping the body of a deceased loved one back home for burial in their native country.”
In short, they are there to provide support, information, and education to a population that is largely overlooked by society.
“When people refer to the chaplaincy, they believe it is just a spiritual thing, but it is way more than that,” Varon said. “We are involved with God, yes, but this office also provides a lot of hope to people.
“We try to support them. They have to know about the system of the country and what is legal and illegal. They need help with prescriptions. They have to file taxes. Enroll their children in school. Pay child support. We teach them and help them in a lot of ways.”
While explaining this, Varon has a calendar sitting in her lap. Every day of every month that has passed is filled with names and phone numbers of people they have followed up on. Whether it is to call and remind them about prescription refills or appointments that need to be kept, the goal is to be an active support system.
Because some workers remain at Keeneland throughout the year and others are just passing through, there are different strategies and time constraints to be considered when someone approaches the chaplaincy for help.
“We know that with the people who are here year round, we will have more time to help them with their process,” Carpenter said. “During the race meet, of course there are more people to serve, and sometimes the help needs to be a little more immediate because they are about to move to another track.
“We do as much as we can do to make them healthy and comfortable while they are here. Then, for instance, I can make a phone call to the chaplain at Saratoga and explain someone is coming up who needs blood pressure medication and can someone make sure he has a place to get his prescriptions.
“It’s no secret that the horse and the horse’s betterment are so important to so many of the workers that they put the horse in front of themselves. We see that a lot and try to explain that before the horse can be healthy, they have to be healthy.”
Beyond the practicalities of life, Carpenter and Varon also tend to the human spirit. Sometimes it is with prayer, but more often than not, it is done through something as simple as a hot cup of coffee.
“Every morning, Diana prepares coffee and snacks for the workers–they come in, and they know that is waiting for them,” said Carpenter. “I know it seems small, but it is important. It speaks volumes to people. We try to let them know someone is constantly thinking about them, and they are not a forgotten people. We make a point to say, ‘Hello, good morning, how was your day?’ It means a lot knowing someone cares about how your day was.”
Just being there can make a difference both emotionally and physically, although it takes some prodding to get the humble duo to discuss some of their success stories.
There was one gentleman who called saying he was “ready to checkout” but after that phone call, he started coming to visit Carpenter just to talk, and now, six months later, he is in a much better place.
Once, while Varon was encouraging female workers to sign up for free mammograms, a woman agreed but said she knew someone who needed help more. It turned out the man she was referring to had severe skin cancer and had become became desolate. The chaplaincy helped him apply for medical assistance, two weeks later he was in surgery, and he is now cancer-free.
Then there are people who need someone to visit them in the hospital when no one else will, or more often, can. One worker had a brain tumor but had no family in the country. Carpenter prayed with him before his operation and was there afterward. Upon waking up and having someone with him at his bedside, the man began to cry.
“Diana and I want to give people hope when they think there is none, and sometimes people get to that point,” said Carpenter. “We take on a lot of people’s emotions, and that can be tough. By the same token, a lot of those emotions are of joy and happiness after we have helped someone. It goes both ways. The hard part about what we do is when we try to be a help to someone, and it just doesn’t work out the way you would want it to.”
Because the reality is, despite the best of intentions, things do not always end well.
“I had one situation with one groom, and the look in his eyes made me afraid,” Varon said. “I knew something was wrong with him. We started talking with him, and realized his problems–he was involved with drugs. I had a lot of compassion for him, and soon I was more like his mom.”
As the seasons changed, the groom, who dreamed of being an exercise rider, moved from track to track, and he would often call Varon asking for advice.
“He ended up getting worse and worse because he knew that society had pushed him out,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “He passed away last year in Florida. It was really hard because he killed himself in a lake, he drowned. He made a big difference in my life though. He is one of the reasons I try to take care of these guys.”
Two Way Street
Working in tandem, Carpenter and Varon have built a rapport with many of the men and women who cross their paths.
Racing is cyclical, so those who move from track to track tend to end up back at Keeneland when the race meet starts up again. Even while they are in different states, Varon notes, it is not unusual for some workers to call the Keeneland Chaplaincy if they are starting to lose their way again because of the level of trust they have established.
The workers also try to show their thanks through tokens of appreciation. One began dropping off ice cream last summer, another sent Carpenter home with a meal made from scratch for his family, some bring flowers, and recently three hot walkers pooled their money together to buy a new watch for Varon.
Both Carpenter and Varon make it extremely clear they never expect thanks in such a tangible way, but they also do not reject them because they recognize how strong an emotion pride can be. Sometimes people need to feel as though they have repaid a debt, even though there was never a debt to repay.
Now, as the spring meet gets into full swing and the backstretch population grows, the duo knows they will be called upon in both expected and unexpected ways.
“I know in this day and age talking about your faith can be an unpopular subject, but my faith helps me to help others,” said Carpenter. “I don’t push my faith on people. It’s a huge ministry in itself just for people to know someone is here, just in case, even if they never come to see us.
“We have to be accessible, available, approachable, and accountable. Unless you are all four of those things, it just won’t work. It’s a family on the backside. I have seen everything from someone who needed a simple emergency meal all the way to someone whose life has been completely transformed through the chaplaincy office. We see it all.”