Foursquare Chaplains are often called to serve in some very unusual places. The Humboldt County Fair in far Northern California is a breed apart. I say that because it is part of the California Racing Fair circuit that features pari-mutuel races with Thoroughbreds, Arabians and mules (yes, mules).
Normally I work in Los Angeles as the Development Director for the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, which sanctions and oversee 67 chaplains. They come from various Christian denominations, but all are part of a cause that takes Christ to a total of 113 tracks and training breeding centers throughout North and recently South America. My administrative and Chaplaincy planting duties take me to visit chaplains and ministers in many places, but I was called to be the actual chaplain at the Humboldt County Fair. I forgot to mention that I am a former jockey who in 20 years of Thoroughbred riding won over 1,200 races. (None, I thank my Savior, was on a mule.)
But during the Fair’s 10-day racing season this summer, I learned second-hand what is it like to ride races on mules and first-hand what it is like to be a track chaplain.
Each morning I walked the row of aging barns where grooms slept on sagging cots, mattresses on wooden floors, and in the backs of parked horse vanes. I talked to horse people, from horse owners and trainers to jockeys and grooms. Many were Christians and one owner/trainer talked to me at length about his pastor. Apparently, he talked with him about summers, when he would turn over his business to his sons while he and his wife lived in a trailer racing the horses and mules they owned. The circuit made several stops in California, including Fresno, Santa Rosa and Vallejo.
As we leaned on the rail during a crisp, sunny August morning, breathed smog-less air, sipped hot coffee and looked out toward the track, he explained that he never bet or drank alcohol, had been married for 40 years and raised a large family of Christians. The one thing he couldn’t resist was the allure of training animals and watching them compete. I was about to explain something about the essence of sin being separation from God and tell him that King Solomon was thought to have owned some 4,000 Arabian chariot racers, but the horses were distracting me. All I could muster was, “Maybe you ought to bring him out here one morning.”
About an hour before first race post time each day, I prayed with the riders. During this time, I learned of a group of men and women who rode Thoroughbreds, Arabians and some incredibly unruly mules. They were actually given to praying.
I had lunch with a special friend on the last day of racing and arrived for prayer after the first round of race jockeys had weighed in and were waiting to go to the paddock. When I announced the prayer, they all got up and walked back in. This was not a testament to me, but their faith and dangerous lifestyles. The previous day, two mules had run over the first turn’s outside fence during a race and miraculously both riders returned to race that same day.
Racing mules are the product of a thoroughbred mare and a male donkey (as called a “Jack”). They are relatively new to racing, but gained popularity a few years ago when Black Ruby became the mule’s version of Secretariat, winning nearly $200,000 and defeating arch rival Taz in a well publicized match. They are anything but docile. Jockeys swear they have long memories and will wait for an opportune time to pay back anything that resembles mistreatment. Their intelligence tells them to stop running when they pass the finish line and their riders raise in the saddle. However, mules stop so abruptly, riders often go flying off the front.
One jockey still riding at the age of 52 came down with a serious leg infection after an Arabian had reared and fallen over backward on him. I drove him and his son to the hospital where I watched doctors lance the leg and promptly admit him. Though the connection of the puncture wound to the accident might have been protested, I spoke to the owner of the horse that injured the rider, and he agreed to claim workers’ compensation. Otherwise, he would have been saddled with a huge bill he had no way of paying.
This jockey’s son wanted to leave the hospital for a track in Montana, but his car had serious transmission problems. Worse, his young girlfriend and their three-month old son had been sleeping in it. He scraped together enough to fly to Montana. Another jockey and his wife took in the girl and her baby. My devotional on “doing unto the least of these,” was followed by a collection taken by the same jockey. It was enough to fix the transmission. We prayed several times with the girl and her baby and, during one of the four visits, he prayed and gave his life to the Lord.
Sandi and I gathered some other Christians together and we invited all their track friends to a hamburger feed in the horseman’s travel trailer lot. A Christian blacksmith played guitar and led hymns and fed about 70 workers. I gave a short sermon on “God being in control despite what we seen on CNN.”
There was only one day without racing, and I held an outside communion service in a carnival area that day. I also met some Christians who ran the carnival and, with Sandi, did a Sunday morning service for about 20 traveling workers who sat on plastic chairs set beneath the ferris wheel.
Many of the grooms did not feel comfortable enough to come to the hamburger feed, so we decided to feed them hot chili on the evening before the short season ended. We bought five gallons of chili from Wendy’s, chopped up some onions and heated tortillas on barbecues. We found one worker, Ricardo, who translated the verse about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey-a sort of mule as I read it aloud. Together, we told the crowd that Jesus was a jockey and the next time He shows up, He will be riding a big, pure white horse.
As we were about to leave for home the final day, we visited the jockey we took to the hospital. We had taken up a collection of $170 at the feed and used $70 on the chili. The rest to him for this jockey. He was being released from the hospital the next day and he, was planning to drive to join his son in Montana if the car could make it.
Back in Los Angeles, I called to discover that the car had been fixed but had broken down again. I was able to get some funding from a racing charity and again helped the family with his workers’ compensation. I hope you join me in prayer the jockey will lead his family to the Lord and that his granddaughter won’t have to sleep in the back of a car anymore.
I think the incident says a lot about racetrackers coming together as sort of a moving family. I think it says even more about the need to have a Chaplain at every track in the world, both big and small. More than ever, through the grace and power of Christ, I am dedicated to helping make that happen. (Even if the track races mules!)