If that last name doesn't sound familiar, it is because Watson works in a cramped office in the hidden backside of New York's Belmont Park, where he mostly ministers to the people whose names never get listed in the racing program. "When I first met him," says Day, "and learned that he was to be the chaplain in New York, I said, 'They're going to chew him up and spit him out. He just walked so softly. He is so kind-mannered. He'll never cut it. But he's a man of God who walks the walk."
On a morning just a few days before this year's Triple Crown race, the Rev. Jim Watson is escorting a hot walker--a man whose job it is to lead the thoroughbreds around the small paddocks outside their stables every day of the year for a salary of some $175 a week--to the emergency room. The man, unsure of his health coverage, needs surgery on an ingrown toenail. Watson's task at the hospital will be to act as translator, list himself as next of kin, confirm that the bills will be sent to the appropriate track authorities, and then pick the hot walker up at the end of the day.
That evening, Watson will write the man's name on a prayer list during evening worship services, along with the names of injured jockeys, cancer-stricken groomsmen, and troubled jockey agents that the dozen worshippers ask him to remember.
Watson never wanted this life. He wanted to be a veterinarian. But as a sophomore in college, he was called to ministry, followed a few years later by a telephone call from a chaplain friend who said a track in Baton Rouge needed a minister. From then on, it was a constant call, track to track, until he ended up in Belmont 13 years ago.
For a man looking to emulate Jesus the track is a perfect proving ground. In 1971, Salty Roberts, a groom and hot walker, and the Rev. Al Dawson, a minister at a church near the Hialeah track in South Florida, realized that since the track workers couldn't get to church, the church needed to come to the track. They founded the Race Track Chaplaincy of America. Watson is one of 36 racetrack ministers.
That means Watson and recreation director Nick Caras, a born-again Christian, must constantly petition track authorities, both at Belmont and nationally, to register workers for health care and social security. They organize ESL and GED classes, help enroll the children in school, check the daily security report and urge those listed to seek substance abuse counseling. They even set up a small library named after a jockey who recently died. They look out for workers like the Guatemalan man who recently brought his wife and three daughters to live in two basement rooms near the track; another is asked to pay $600 a month per room with a shared kitchen and bathroom.
Both Watson and Caras say the hardest part of their jobs is to make the backsiders feel valued. Everything at a thoroughbred track revolves around the multimillion-dollar horses, says Watson. The workers, he says, are constantly reminded that the horse is the most important. The message comes through that 'I'm not important.'"
Watson demonstrates his solidarity with the workers by eating at the cafeteria off the recreation hall, not down the way at Liz's Kitchen, where the food is a bit better but a sign on the door reads, "Owners, Trainers, Officials, Jockeys, and Jockeys Agents Only." "That's discrimination," says Watson. "It's illegal. This is the only place in the world where they could get by with it. And as long as that sign is up, I'm drinking my coffee here."
The men in attendance shyly sing along as a woman plays an electric organ and a teenage boy with long dark hair and a hooded sweatshirt accompanies her on baritone saxophone.