Judging by the way Hialeah's stalls are aligned, it would appear God is on Alydar's side for Saturday's $150,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, just as He was for last month's Flamingo Stakes.
Alydar stands at one end of the Calumet barn at Hialeah. The track chaplain's office is on the other end. John Veitch, Alydar's young trainer, obviously is in perfect position to seek a little devine help, if necessary, although his colt figures to be 1 to 2 or shorter this weekend.
The work of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America in Florida is not to be taken lightly, however. This is the national headquarters for the organization, which sends out ministers to 24 tracks in five states on a full-time basis, and is looking to expand its operations.
"Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio and southern California are in our program," said Neal Owings, the chaplaincy's executive director. "The tracks in northern California are coming in, just as soon as we can find the right man for them, and many tracks in other areas also have shown serious interest."
The chaplains help fill a need on the backstretch, among the poorly paid people to whom caring for costly thoroughbreds is a daily way of life.
"These are multiproblem people, in many instances," Owings said. "Their pay and their working conditions leave much to be desired, in many respects, but they love their work. There's no veneer on these people. They come into the chapel, usually the track cafeteria, and they're smoking or drinking and they'll tell the minister 'to get on with it' because they have to get up at 4 to be at the stables the next morning.
"I had a groom come up to me recently and say, 'We know we're lost but at least we don't kid ourselves into thinking we've been saved'."
The chaplains are available for consultation each day during a race meeting. They listen to the problem of the grooms and the hot walkers and the exercise riders and, whenever possible, direct them to agencies that may be able to help.
"That may be the greatest contribution we make," said Owings, the owner of a Miami auto-parts business who is not salaried by the chaplains' group. "Our men show these people how to go about getting help. We counsel them, marry them, bury them. We've paid for births, burials and doctor bills. Thirteen times at Calder last year, our chaplain was listed as next of kin on death certificate. Many times, he and the undertaker are the only persons standing beside the grave."
A state racing commission chairman once observed that racing "employs the unemployables." The quality of the labor force in the backstretch has improved in recent years, as more and more women have been employed. But that, as Owings noted, has created new problems.
"There is less of a drug and an alcohol problem," he said, "although there is still plenty of that to contend with. Now we have these young, beautiful girls coming in and, frankly, they compound the fracture in another way."
The three Florida chaplains draw $18,000 a year. The salaries are paid by Hialeah, Gulfstream and Calder and the area division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. This is the standard setup in most state, with the Race Track Chaplaincy keeping 10 percent for administrative expenses and expansion of the ministry.
"All our chaplains are college graduates, ordained ministers, who have had previous pastorates," Owings said. "Our men in Kentucky and Florida are Southern Baptist; in California, he's from the Assembly of God; in New Jersey and Ohio, they're American Baptist and, right now, we're trying to find a Methodist or a Presbyterian, or perhaps a Catholic priest, who could go into the Fair Grounds in New Orleans soon. Our men must be self-motivating; we can't check on them all the time.
Owings said he has not been successful in talks with Maryland tracks. Only Pimlico showed any interest. "Some tracks say they don't have the money, the $60 total a day we ask for one our our chaplains," he said. "But our program pays for itself. Track executives tell us the crime dropped 20 percent once our man goes in.
"We fell the race track chaplaincy is the most exciting ministry in the country today. People aren't going to church like they used to, so we go out and take the message to them, like Jesus did. Yet there's so much to do, and we don't have the time to make many of the trips across the country required to get some tracks interested. We've only scraped the surface, for 'the Lord sees as no man sees (I Samuel 16:17)'.If we must 'see' a person, let us see him through the 'eyes' of grace."