Dawn at the Downs is held on the backside of Louisville’s Churchill Downs each Spring. It’s a special time where people gather to watch early-morning workouts of the horses that will run on the world-famous track in the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby later that week.
While there, most are unaware that hundreds of people—the unnoticed heroes of the horse racing industry—are working behind the scenes. However, they likely will notice the chapel in the distance. It is a great reminder that there is more going on than just racing.
Realizing that working sunup to sundown seven days a week for months on end left backside workers—most of Hispanic descent—little time to attend church, the late Horace W. (Salty) Roberts began the Race Track Chaplaincy of America (RTCA) in 1972. There are now 40 chaplains serving 46 facilities in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Meeting the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental needs of workers and their families, they are ambassadors to the horse racing industry and have seen life changes all across their tracks.
“We try to be a friend to them by letting them know there is someone they can come and talk to, and see there is someone for them,” said Joseph Del Rosario, the chaplain at Churchill Downs. “We call this a ‘ministry of presence’ working for the glory of God.”
The backside communities are impacted through this type of ministry, as the chaplains at each of the racetracks have opportunities to connect with and disciple those they meet. Just recently, a new worker shared with Joseph following a church service one night that he had experienced an unexplainable pull to come to chapel and get close to Jesus. Joseph gave the man a Bible and directed him to start reading the Gospel of John. In the following days, Joseph began meeting with him to dig deeper into God’s Word.
Hall of Fame jockey and Kentucky Derby winner Pat Day, who is active in the Chaplaincy’s work, added, “Hearts are being won, lives are being changed, and people are being set free from the bondage of drugs and alcohol. All problems that are prevalent in today’s society can be seen on the backside of the racetracks.
“When we raise up the quality of the life of the workers by meeting some of their needs by sharing the Gospel and being there to listen and assist, it raises up the quality of that group of individuals.”
A great example of how lives have been changed is two workers who began coming to church several months ago. With honest questions about the Bible but continuing to meet with the chaplain and coming to church months later, they decided to follow Jesus. God is working in their lives, and they have been faithful to attend church every Monday night. They aren’t alone, as eight people decided to follow Jesus in just one month.
The Kentucky Race Track Chaplaincy (KRTC), a division of the RTCA formally established in 1998, has a presence at five major racetracks. Besides Churchill Downs, the KRTC is active at Ellis Park, Kentucky Downs, and Turfway Park in Kentucky and Belterra Park in Ohio near Cincinnati.
The KRTC is doing amazing work to assist backside workers and their families. Volunteers at the food pantry and clothes closet help meet urgent needs. They also prepare and serve meals and greet workers at a worship service each Monday at most of the tracks—an important part of the ministry of presence. Volunteers also assist with events throughout the week, including Bible studies, sewing classes for women, and children’s events.
“It brings the Word of the Lord to the backside,” Harold, a hot walker at Churchill Downs, said of the chapel. “Among all the things they give us—clothing, feed us on a daily basis—there’s nourishment every day. The main nourishment is the Word, the Word they bring to the backside. It helps you get up every day and work every day.”
When thinking of horse races, it’s important to remember the unsung heroes of the racing industry—those who rise before the sun each morning to bathe, walk, and feed the horses and clean the stalls, leaving little time for any personal life—and the dawning of the chaplaincy program that started 50 years ago.
Dawn at the Downs is an amazing time as it offers an up-close-and-personal opportunity to hear the majestic horses race around the track at Churchill Downs. Beyond the thundering of the hooves lies your chance to help someone else win.
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