By Lynne Snierson
As the lyrics go in the iconic Andy Williams song, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year. With kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer.” But the holidays can be the bluest time of the year, especially for anyone far away from home, separated from family, or feeling alone, lonely, forlorn or forgotten.
That’s why people in the racing industry have joined hands to help make Christmas merry and bright for everyone working on the backside at tracks across North America.
Dan Waits, executive director of the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, said, “The RTCA has chaplains at 47 different tracks and I’m positive that every single one of them is doing some type of Christmas celebration, party or a get together. We try to improve everyone’s life. That’s what the chaplaincy does. Our chaplains try to make sure each person knows they are not alone and that they are loved. It’s not just saying, ‘I love you’. It’s saying also that, ‘God loves you.’ We make sure that they know we’re here for them.”
Affiliates of the national Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association and executives and employees at racetracks running live meets during the winter months are also there in force, although from a secular standpoint.
“This year, NYRA employees generously donated hundreds of new toys that were subsequently distributed to the backstretch community through events held by the New York Racetrack Chaplaincy and the Belmont Child Care Association. Each year, NYRA supports backstretch holiday events through direct financial contributions as well as through efforts grounded in volunteering time and energy to support the community,” said Patrick McKenna, the communications director at NYRA.
Once the morning chores are completed and the horses are tucked safely in their stalls on the day of Christmas Eve, there are special festivities and activities held on the backside at several tracks.
Marty Maline, the longtime executive director of the Kentucky HBPA, reported that for the past 40 years on Christmas Eve the horsemen’s group has hosted an hours long barbeque with all the fixings at Turfway Park and the caterer for Northern Kentucky University handles the cooking chores while he and some other horsemen are the servers and wait on tables. During the dinner hours, the HBPA provides trays of sandwiches to make sure no one goes hungry. On Christmas, there are more sandwich trays available courtesy of the HBPA, which also plays Santa Claus so that everyone holding a track license is gifted with a new jacket, socks, towels and a bag of toiletries. In Christmas night the Kentucky horsemen take over the track kitchen and put on another hot meal and leave out more trays of sandwiches.
“I always felt for those guys stuck back there in a tack room, and at least with this they get an opportunity to hear Christmas music and sit with friends,” reported Maline, who added in an email that there is a Christmas party for the Turfway backside workers complete with gifts for the children during the week before Christmas, and at that party front-side employees with kids are also welcome.
Although Oaklawn Park doesn’t begin its 2020 meet until late in January, plenty of outfits have already shipped in and training is underway on an almost full backside. There was Christmas spirit in abundance at the Hot Springs, Arkansas track and on December 16 the track’s ownership of the Cella Family, the Arkansas HBPA and the Oaklawn Chapel hosted a party in the grandstand that was attended by nearly 200 people – adults and children – and staffed by 37 volunteers.
“All the kids got a wrapped gift. We had 43 adult gifts including Beats headphones, an 8-inch tablet, a 24-inch television set, and there was a $100 money tree. Our goodie bags for all included gloves, dental kits, bibles, socks, candy, crackers, cookies, and a $10 voucher for the track kitchen. A huge thank you goes out to Oaklawn for hosting our party,” said Robi Heffington, who is with Arkansas’s division of the RTCA.
Dave Joseph, the communications director at The Stronach Group-owned Gulfstream Park in South Florida, checked in to report that the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (FHBPA) and Gulfstream hosted holiday parties at the track and at the Palm Meadows Training Center, providing food and toys to more than 650 families. Workers at Gulfstream were invited to a holiday party on Monday (Dec. 16) while Palm Meadows workers were celebrated on Dec. 17. Along with dinner and refreshments, each child was presented with gifts. The FHBPA and Gulfstream also hosted an event Dec. 20 at Gulfstream Park West.
“The kids were excited, each one received four or five gifts,” said Chaplain Tom LaPointe of His Place Ministries. LaPointe, who has helped at Florida racetracks since the late 1980s, added; “The kids had a lot of fun, it was great for the parents, as well as for everyone who came out. Everyone took pictures and it was great to work with the FHBPA and Gulfstream.”
At the TSG-owned Santa Anita Park in Southern California, which opens its winter/spring meet on Dec. 28 (two days later than scheduled due to a rainy weather forecast), the track was finalizing plans for the annual holiday party it throws on the backside every Christmas Eve. On Dec. 17, veteran trainer Leonard Powell and his daughter Jeanne were among many representatives of the California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT), the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation (CTHF), and the Edwin J. Gregson Memorial Foundation, who joined forces with Santa Anita officials to put on a bountiful spread for several hundred backstretch workers in the track’s clubhouse.
At Hawthorne Race Course in Chicago the spirit of the season is celebrated joyously.
“We have quite a few activities that take place for the kids on the backstretch. Through the RICF (Racing Industry Charitable Foundation), we host events throughout the year for the backstretch workers,’’ said Hawthorne’s communications director and racing analyst Jim Miller. “Last Sunday (Dec. 15) we had our Christmas party at Hawthorne especially for the workers and their kids. Hawthorne conducts a toy drive and those presents are wrapped and given to the kids at the party. Additionally, we provide a party room at the track, with all kinds of food, drinks, music, and Santa Claus visits the kids for that afternoon. It’s always a great event as nearly 200 kids attend each year.”
At Tampa Bay Downs, which is the winter home-away-from-home for many outfits from Chicago, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic tracks, the local HBPA chapter hosts a holiday cookout every year for the backside employees and runs a barn decoration contest prizes for the barns as well as the horses. This year’s cookout, which featured trainers as the chefs and servers, was held Dec. 17. Two days later the RTCA chaplains hosted a dinner under tents. The Oklahoma HBPA reported that their affiliate hosted a Christmas party for all the backstretch workers with their chaplaincy and the horsemen put on a hay ride, cake walks with the cakes donated as well as all the food provided, and Santa Claus stops to hand out gift cards and presents. Some of the presents, which were all donated for the families, were bicycles and other big ticket items.
The Louisiana HBPA, which served 682 meals on Thanksgiving Day to backstretch workers, provides all the funds for the chaplains to put on a Christmas meal on Christmas Day at both the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Delta Downs in Vinton. North of the border, the HBPA of Ontario, Canada takes care of their backstretch workers throughout the holiday season, and they host a Christmas party with dinner and all the trimmings for workers and their families. The chapter hires Santa to come and jolly old St. Nick gives the workers’ children gifts selected and paid for by the HBPA. The horsemen also give special recognition to the top three grooms and the top three assistant trainers.
These are only some of the examples of the generous efforts across the industry to show appreciation to the backstretch employees for all of their dedication, contributions, and long hours worked 365 days a year.
“We’re all in this together,’’ said Waits. “We work with a lot of organizations and the HBPA is a strong partner. We work with all the horsemen’s groups. They all know that the chaplaincy is exponentially trying to improve the environment for everybody, and the HBPA chapters are doing that as well. We all have to make sure that the horse racing community is working together and trying to do the best for every individual at every track and every farm.”
Lynne Snierson, a former director of communications at Arlington Park and Rockingham Park, currently is a freelance writer and racing publicist. She covered thoroughbred racing as an award-winning sportswriter for newspapers In Boston, Miami, and St. Louis. She lives in New Hampshire with Mavis, her retired AKC champion Shetland Sheepdog. Secretariat remains her all-time favorite horse.