By Lynne Snierson
Roasted spring chicken with stuffing, fresh green beans, and all the fixins’ won’t be piled onto a high roller’s plate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Instead, gourmet meals are being packaged in take-out boxes at the racetrack, and distributed to those who otherwise might go without food due to the restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby have been rescheduled from next weekend to early September, but Churchill’s culinary staff is far from idle. Chefs won’t be preparing meals for hundreds of thousands of on-track racing fans, but their kitchens are humming.
David Danielson, Churchill’s executive chef, opened his kitchens to cook meals for healthcare workers on the front lines as well as those restaurant workers who have been laid off or lost their jobs, according to a report by WLKY-TV in Louisville. Danielson partnered with The Lee Initiative, a charitable arm of the area’s Lee Restaurants Group, and launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, with Maker’s Mark bourbon also in the project.
“We’re just happy to be here. Strange times, different situation, but we’re cooking for the community just like we normally do,” Davidson told the TV station.
As of April 17, the collaborative effort had already distributed 5,000 free meals in the Louisville area. Nationally, the Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation is doing its part to take care of industry workers in desperate need while all but a handful of racetracks across the country are shuttered.
“Obviously, this is very important right now. This is exactly what we do,” said Shannon Kelly, executive director of the Safety Net Foundation. “These are the types of situations we help with. What makes the Safety Net unique is that we help all participants in the industry and that includes every type of backstretch worker, office personnel, breeding farm workers, exercise riders, and anyone you can think of.
“If you work in horse racing and you’re caring for our industry and our equine athletes, you can apply to our foundation. How we do our work is through partnerships and relationships with the local horsemen’s organizations and the local chaplaincy and the national Racetrack Chaplaincy of America. They alert the cases to us. We have the relationships in place already. This was a perfect opportunity to utilize these relationships to see which racetracks were in the most dire situations.”
In normal times, the foundation offers two types of assistance. One is for short-term situations where someone is stricken with an illness or has a family issue and needs help with medical bills and/or basic living expenses. The other is for long-term monthly assistance cases that can last from a year to indefinitely. These are not normal times so all efforts are being devoted to COVID-19 relief efforts.
In the last month, assistance has been provided to backstretch communities at Churchill Downs, Parx Racing in Pennsylvania, Remington Park in Oklahoma, Retama Park in Texas, Hollywood Mahoning Valley Racecourse in Ohio, and Belmont Park in New York.
At Belmont, there was a dangerous outbreak of the virus, with hot-walker Martin Zapata succumbing in March.
“In the last month we’ve helped six different chaplaincies at those tracks fill their food pantries. New York is a very hard-hit area. At Belmont we are also taking care of many other basic needs for the backstretch community,” Kelly explained.
Kroops, the company that makes jockey googles, has changed its production to making face protective shields. In reaching out to the foundation, it was able to purchase 1,000 of them to send to the Belmont backstretch community.
“We’re in constant communication with the chaplaincies. We anticipate the needs to change a little bit. Right now, it’s to fill the immediate need, keep everyone fed and take care of the basic services. Workers need hand sanitizer and protective gear. We anticipate that moving forward their needs will change depending upon how long racetracks aren’t open or how long this situation goes on. Right now we are dealing with the requests as they come,” Kelly said.
But in order to keep meeting the constant need, the money must keep rolling in. Fundraising efforts are being ramped up and all donations that come in are devoted exclusively to the COVID-19 response.
If race-trackers and racing fans never heard of the Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation, there’s a reason.
“Our work has been confidential, and we quietly helped the community. But now more than ever we need to show ourselves,’’ said Kelly. “We need to pull away the curtain and show all of the great work that we’re doing and all the partnerships we’ve created to work with all the different organizations. More than ever we need to promote that the industry is in this together and we are all working together. We know the importance of the backstretch community and the people who work with our horses. We’re ready to jump in where we need to.’’
So are others. Local businesses that are charitable are offering promotions where a percentage of the sales profits are donated. The Saratoga, New York- based Old Smoke Clothing Company created a T-shirt with a social distancing theme and all of the profits of the popular item are being donated. Penelope Miller, the senior manager of digital media at America’s Best Racing, came up with the idea for a virtual pie-eating contest, the Battle for the Backside; Pies vs. COVID-19 (@pieforbackside on Twitter) on April 25.
“Penelope instantly said the money should go to the Safety Net because we can help so vastly because we’re national and have our hands in so many baskets. We can get the money quickly to people so they can put it to good use,” said Kelly. “We’re also working on PSAs (public service ads) that will be on the network TV shows that are airing racing now. We did an on-air interview with Fox Sports on their America’s Day at the Races show on April 5. We’re trying to put our name out there as much as we can and showing where the money is going so people will continue to share our content and spread the word so that if people want to help they know how they can.”
The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation is a 501C3 charitable trust, so all donations are tax-deductible. To donate visit tjcfoundation.org/donate/.
“This is a great way to help, small or large,” said Kelly, “and every donation is very much appreciated.”
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. Secretariat remains her all-time favorite horse.