2016-06-30
Ask super-jockey Pat Day who his heroes are, and you might expect him to name a legendary rider from the past. Instead, the winning jockey in this year's Belmont Stakes and the man who earned $18 million in purse money last year cites two ministers: the Rev. Billy Graham and the Rev. Jim Watson.

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.

The potential flock at Belmont numbers about 3,500. A full thousand of those are single men who live for free in track dormitories that are as good as the price tag. Some can't afford bedding and sleep on the floor three or four to a room. Belmont's population is more stable than at tracks with shorter seasons, but it is still itinerant. An unofficial estimate of the demographics puts a full 90% from Mexico (primarily from three towns) with another 4% from South America. Few speak English, and they are reluctant to seek help when they most need it.

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."

A few years ago, Watson fused his English and Spanish religious services so everyone worships together. The men sit in folding chairs in T-shirts, jeans, and mud-splattered boots, following along in the bilingual Bibles donated by the Race Track Chaplaincy. On the cover is a paddock before a race and the title, "God's Conditioning Book: A Guidebook for Running the Race of Life."

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.

Simmering under the workers' troubles with drinking, drugs, violence, and gambling are self-esteem problems. Pat Day, now the spokesperson for Race Track Chaplaincy of America, knows this firsthand. In 1982, Day was the leading rider in the country and a man with a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol. After reaching the top spot, he dragged his New Year's Eve celebration out for two weeks. When he emerged from his fog, he realized that the success he had sought did not "equate with long-term peace and happiness." He began a search for something more, even joining a group lead by a guru from India to find his inner self.

In 1983, he was again the leading rider, and to him the accomplishment felt more anticlimactic. One night in a hotel room in Miami, he turned on Jimmy Swaggart's show for background noise, disliked the message and style, and turned it off. He fell into a deep sleep and woke to a disconcerting presence in the room. He turned the TV back on, not sure whether he sought to break the mood or because the Lord directed him to do so, and found Swaggart in the middle of the altar call. Day fell on his knees and began to weep.

"They say when you die, your whole life passes before your eyes," says Day. "I was dying to my old self. I could see the number of times that I had gotten right up to the brink of destruction. And it was almost as if God would reach down and gently nudge me back. I could see how his hand had been upon me my entire life." From that moment, he dedicated himself to Jesus Christ, quitting drugs entirely. He has only had half a beer since--after the 1985 Kentucky Derby--a momentary whim that left him with a splitting headache and two days of nausea.

Day says the track is more religious than it was 30 years ago because of the work of the chaplaincy program. It's not uncommon these days to see jockeys wearing WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets. Star jockeys like Jerry Bailey, trainers Elliott Walden and Dallas Stewart, and prominent owner Cott Campbell speak publicly about their faith.

Day wrestled with the issue of how to resolve his beliefs with his work in an industry that revolves around gambling, but then realized that his God-given talent provides him with a forum and a community in which he can spread the message.

Watson agrees. The isolationism of some Christians always annoyed him--the PTL-style theme parks, even Christians who forsake the public schools for religious institutions. "It's a cop out," he says.

In the fray, he has had his moments of crisis--like when a groom in his 30s finally kicked drinking and drugs, emerged from his stupor into six hopeful months of sobriety and then was hit by a car and killed when biking to an AA meeting. But then there are the times the backsiders--the people who have so little--take up a collection to buy an injured colleague an artificial limb or pay for a funeral. "The biggest thing for me is to let them know that the whole reason I'm back here is because I care for them," says Watson, drinking his coffee in the rec-hall cafeteria. "And the main reason I care for them even without knowing them is that God cares for them. And if God cares for them that must be worth something."

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