Since 1971, the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America (RTCA) has been providing supportive services to backstretch workers across the country. The organization functions with the guidance of a national board of directors and constitution. The New York (RTCANY) branch of the chaplaincy—founded in 1986—is currently led by Chaplain Humberto Chavez and works with the Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct tracks.
The mission of the organization is to address the spiritual needs of the personnel at New York Racing Association (NYRA) tracks. The Chaplain serves as the official minister to this unique population without regard to race, creed, religion, background or social status.
The chaplaincy’s main focus is to provide for the whole person; they meet physical, financial, educational, and spiritual needs through their non-denominational outreach programs. Some of these programs include men’s ministry, women’s ministry, youth group, chaplaincy care, and recreation ministry. In addition, the chaplaincy hosts special events for major holidays and helps workers and their family members attain United States citizenship.
The RTCANY operates through a network of volunteers. According to Chaplain Chavez, at any given time, the chaplaincy has 15–20 consistent volunteers. Around the holidays and major events, other volunteers provide backup support. Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, the chaplaincy distributed 200 turkeys to backstretch workers and their families.
Backstretch workers find it easy to get involved with the chaplaincy because it has a long history with the racing industry. Chaplain Chavez commented, “We’re not new; we’re that one-stop shop. People know where we are and how to get a hold of us.” Even though they are well-known, the organization also does outreach to ensure that all workers and their families receive help. Members of the chaplaincy walk the barns to meet new workers and offer assistance.
Aside from the grant funds that are provided to RCTANY from TCA, the chaplaincy receives monetary help from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, New York Racing Association (NYRA), the Jockey Club Safety Net, and private donors, to name a few. This funding allows the chaplaincy to minister to the backstretch workers and continue their work.
When asked how TCA can and does help the organization, Chaplain Chavez said that monetary assistance and publicity are two major avenues of needed assistance. “By letting the industry know that we’re here, you’re helping. When there’s awareness, people want to get involved.”
When asked said his favorite part of serving as the chaplain in New York is “being able to be an encourager, a facilitator to a community that is so unique, which is the horse racing industry community.” He also mentioned the joy of seeing “celebratory accomplishment” arise from a crisis through the help of the chaplaincy. “We’re blessed to be a blessing to the people we serve, both in their hard times and in their highs.”
Chaplain Chavez has a dream for the future of RTCANY. He said, “My vision has always been to have a chaplain for each track. I think it benefits the individuals who are at that track to have someone there who is steady.” He would also like to increase the staff of the chaplaincy to better serve backstretch workers in need.
The RTCANY fulfills a unique role within the racing industry. Chaplain Chavez describes it best: “It’s about relationships, and we’re that agency that goes the extra mile, not only for the worker, but for the whole family. I think the workers find a trusted brother when they reach out to the Racetrack Chaplaincy of New York.”