Humberto Chavez ministers to the entire backstretch community.
Humberto Chavez is a powerful man, but he doesn’t see himself that way.
“I would have never thought that I’d be here but this is where the Lord has set for me to be at this time,” said Chavez.
For the past eight years, Chavez has been the lifeline of the Saratoga backstretch. As the chaplain for the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America New York Division, Chavez is the go-to guy for just about everything.
A baby needs baptism—Chavez can perform that. A backstretch worker needs help translating—Chavez speaks Spanish and English. A family needs advice about medical care or a ride to work or help planning a funeral or memorial service—Chavez can do it all.
“We don’t have guidelines … we just kind of do it and we try for people not to fall down through the cracks. That’s the difference between a program who takes care of the health issues and a program who takes care of personnel and so on; we’re like that net that won’t let you crash,” said Chavez.
No job too big (or small)
Chavez is chaplain for all three racetracks in New York: Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct. During the Saratoga racing season he and his family (wife, Karen, and three sons) live in a log cabin not too far from the racetrack. The rest of the year is spent downstate, but no matter where he is, Chavez ministers all religious denominations and is on call 24/7.
“When you have a mass number of workers, you always have that personnel that would probably take care of different aspects … when you bring in the midst of all those services somebody just to lend a hand to somebody at 11 o’clock in the morning or at 4 o’clock in the morning when you know that person will always be there, it’s different,” said Chavez.
It seems strenuous to play such an integral role in the lives of the entire Latino community, but Chavez said that’s exactly why it’s so important.
“When it comes down to ministering on any type of level, a smile would be considered ministering and we strongly believe in that because this industry kind of revolves very quickly and sometimes it’s hard to sit and get a smile from anybody, so sometimes just smiling and saying ‘good morning’ to somebody, we know that we’re ministering to that person happiness,” said Chavez.
Right where they belong
It might not seem like a glamorous life—toiling in the heat amid mud and horse dung and being responsible for coveted animals—but the backstretch workers are exactly where they want to be, said Chavez.
“Many of the people who work here are horse-related. There’s a section in Mexico which most of our Mexican workers come from; it’s a big state with a lot of horse breeding, so they migrate through different programs,” said Chavez.
The South American workforce from Argentina, Chili and Venezuela hail from numerous racetracks and breeding farms throughout their countries and migrate to the U.S. as former exercise riders or even jockeys.
“They see this as more of a take it easy type of atmosphere than what they’re used to back in their country because it’s hard to make ends meet down there,” said Chavez.
Striving for a better life (financially) can come at a price, though.
“They come here with all these awesome programs that immigration gives them and they can supply for their families for awhile but they get to see their families three months out of the year,” said Chavez. “Life is hard when you’re away from your family.”
The chaplaincy does what it can to help ease that loneliness or what may arise from it. And, for those workers who are lucky enough to bring their families along, there are programs for that as well, like child care services and a program where children are sponsored to attend camps during the day when their parents are working.
“It’s something for them to do since mom and dad might be working two jobs, one in the morning with the horses and one in the afternoon at a local restaurant or the racetrack itself,” said Chavez.
In Belmont the chaplaincy has a school program and gives out food on a weekly basis, as well as at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The backstretch village
So what’s it like to be a backstretch worker? Chavez said there are several jobs, starting with the trainer in charge of training the horses, a foreman, assistant trainers, grooms and hot walkers.
“The groom is the voice of the actual horse. If it hurts, the groom knows that it hurts somewhere,” said Chavez. “The hot walker is the person that walks a horse for about 30 minutes and gets to cool the horse down when they’re off the track.”
There could be five to eight different horses to care for on a daily basis, so backstretch workers rise at 4 a.m. and are usually done by 9 or 10 a.m.
Workers have the option of living on site in the racetrack dormitory, which looks much like a college dorm room, but they can also opt to find their own housing elsewhere in town and pay rent.
Besides the unplanned and spontaneous situations that require Chavez’s attention or action, the chaplaincy has a slew of programs targeting educational, social, recreational and other issues.
There’s a Monday night bible study, soccer or basketball tournaments and backstretch appreciation evenings in a tent behind the recreation center. At the Belmont and Aqueduct race courses there’s a Closet of Hope, food distribution and other assistance.
The chaplaincy gets its “parishioners” recognition too. Jockeys, trainers and owners of winning horses are typically all the public sees, but the chaplaincy gives the backstretch workers their time in the spotlight, too.
“The day before the Travers there’s the seventh race named after the racetrack chaplaincy and we take that moment to kind of say ‘thank you’ to the winning horse’s groom and hot walker. They get trophies,” said Chavez. “We honor the hot walker and groom who obviously do a 24-hour caretaking of the actual horse.”
Taking it in stride
Being the chaplain to so many people from so many different places can be difficult at times; draining and always being pulled in a hundred different directions. But Chavez said the stories he hears and the people he ministers makes his job rewarding and worth it.
“Each individual is made up like a carbon and that’s how we take it. It’s awesome to know we take that carbon and really shine it up and eventually it becomes that diamond that it was meant to be,” said Chavez.
It’s all about making an impact, he said.
“If we can do it with a smile, we’ll do it. That’s what drives us and gives us that adrenaline that we sometimes need,” said Chavez.
The unconventional faith route his life has taken is also what makes his job so special, said Chavez.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would be making an impact in the horseracing industry where the halls that I walk thrugh are filled with mud,” said Chavez. “My ‘parishioners’ are not white collar coming into a church but are just regular folks who are doing great things within their families.”
Fulfilling “God’s calling” is also setting an example for his children, said Chavez.
“One of the legacies to leave behind to my kids is for them to know that making an impact in this world starts with one person and starts with you. Any way you can go a little bit more than a mile for an individual could change that individual, so they’ve understood that at this young age,” said Chavez. “Sometimes the workload is heavy but it comes with the job description and they’ve understood that as well.”
Helping the ‘helper’
The chaplaincy operates on a very tight budget, so on Monday, Aug. 8, there will be an annual fundraiser organized by horse owner and trainer wives. A breakfast will be held at 8 a.m. inside the Grandstand at the Rail Pavilion with speakers and a video.
“I’ll talk about what we do and how they can support us,” said Chavez.
For more information about the chaplaincy and the services it offers, visit www.rtcany.org.