Chaplain aiding unseen crews
CHARLES TOWN – The new chaplain serving the backstretch of the Charles Town Race Track is a familiar face for many there. For 18 years, Pastor Joel Hiradlo Alvira was a jockey himself, spending the last nine of those years at Charles Town.
“It is very familiar,” Hiraldo laughs. “Everyone here knows me.”
Hiraldo, who came to Charles Town after nine years of racing in Puerto Rico, first established a bilingual pentecostal ministry, Promesas de Dios, in the Charles Town/Ranson area two years after arriving at the track. He first held services at Oakland Church, then rented a variety of spaces as his congregation grew.
He says he now ministers to a congregation of 85 people in addition to his service as track chaplain, which he began last month.
“He is our face on the track,” says Peter Fricke, a council member with the Race Track Chaplaincy. “Every day, he is in the barns.”
“Joel is a very kind person, and you can feel his warmth,” says Victoria White, president of the Chaplaincy Council. “The people know that what he is doing for them comes from his heart. He is a very compassionate person.”
The Chaplaincy, an ecumenical organization, exists to provide spiritual counsel to the community of hundreds of riders, grooms, trainers and other workers who make the racing industry – which a 2010 study found generates 1,450 jobs and more than $200 million of economic activity locally – possible.
“The first thing is spiritual,” Hiraldo says. “If you don’t have a good spiritual life, you have big problems.”
“A chaplain’s day begins when the barns wake up in the morning,” Fricke says. “By mid-morning, he is providing vital social services: taking people to doctors’ appointments, leading prayers over the intercom.”
“Every day that there are races, at 6:20, before the first race, I go to the weigh-in room,” Hirlado says. “We talk about the bible, I take prayer requests, and we pray for the safety of all the riders.”
Hiraldo holds worship services at a nearby training facility every Sunday, and leads a bible study group every Monday.
But, as Hiraldo and Fricke explained, the community also faces very concrete difficulties: low pay, long hours, high injury rates, a lack of health insurance, insufficient access to transportation and high rates of drug and alcohol addiction.
“There are only two trainers that we know of who employ people as you would normally recognize somebody to be employed,” Fricke explains. “Everybody else is paid on a cash basis, and it’s not even minimum wage most of the time.”
“People here work damn hard,” Fricke says. “If you are an exercise rider, you are paid $10 a ride, so you find your rides every morning. You may work with a trainer on a regular basis, but if he doesn’t have a ride for you that day, you have to go and hustle to find another ride.”
Serious injuries are a fact of daily life on the backstretch.
“It’s a very dangerous business here,” Fricke says. “It is very easy for somebody to be kicked, for somebody to be crushed.”
“There is no health insurance back here,” he adds.
“Every day somebody gets injured,” Hiraldo says. “I go to the hospital every morning. If somebody gets hurt, I go with the ambulance and stay while we wait for the family. And I pray for the person.”
“I try to do everything I can,” he says.
Fricke said the Chaplaincy works hard to provide backstretch workers suffering from addiction with treatment and a second chance.
“Normally, if there is someone on the backstretch who has a drug or alcohol abuse problem of any kind, they just lose their license. They are kicked off the track,” Fricke said, adding that this can leave them unable to find similar employment. “Here we have an arrangement set up with the stewards where, if somebody has a problem, he is referred to the Chaplaincy, and the Chaplaincy coordinates a counseling program.”
“We were fortunate, about four years ago, to have had a chaplain who was also a licensed counselor,” Fricke added. “The caseload at that time was about 35 people at one time. Now, we don’t have those kinds of resources.”
While the Chaplaincy continues to provide rehabilitation treatment by contracting with EastRidge Health Systems, they have had to cut services to a fraction of what they previously offered.
“We can only afford to have five to eight people in the program at any one time,” he said, a vastly insufficient amount. The chaplaincy hopes to bring a counselor onto its staff on a part-time basis in order to meet the needs of the community.
“Our program here is based entirely on donations,” Fricke said. “We are fortunate that the track gives us a little bit of money. The horsemen give us money. But, if we were to do a decent job, we would be looking at a $100,000 per year operation.
“We only have $65,000 to $75,000 a year. There are a lot of unmet needs.”
The Chaplaincy has requested grants from the cities of Charles Town and Ranson, and hopes that community members will make donations as well.
The Chaplaincy will host a reception on April 20 from 1 to 3 p.m. at 112 Racetrack Street, to introduce Hiraldo to the community. The public is invited.
Fricke said that, despite ongoing problems, the last decade has brought vast improvements to the lives of the workers on the backstretch due to a year-round racing schedule.
“They are becoming more and more a part of the community,” he said. “And the most important part of that is the 220 days of racing here. Trainers and owners and the guys here have a stable life. Often, in the past, a track would open in May, close in October.”
“In the old days, when you didn’t have year-round racing, it was very mobile,” Fricke said, explaining that workers would regularly move from track to track as work became available. “People lived wherever they could. Now, what we have are people who are buying houses or renting, and establishing community roots. Kids are in school.”
“Here, there is a degree of stability, and we are beginning to see that now.”