HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Rick Mann is a chaplain with horse sense. Every day, he ministers to people who make their living, and often their home, on the backstretch of Oaklawn Park racetrack.
As the racing season begins, he’s one of the few people at the track not praying that he picked a winner. Instead he’s busy making sure the groomers, exercise riders and other track employees have a warm place to sleep, a Bible to read and whatever other support they need.
“This ministry requires a lot of social work,” Mann said. “With a track, you go and minister to people by helping supply their physical needs. And when they have a spiritual need, then they turn to you because you already have a connection.”
When Mann arrived at Oaklawn in early December, one of his first tasks was to find 100 mattresses for workers who had arrived without bedding. He found the needed supplies at a Best Western that was undergoing renovations.
Most of the roughly 1,200 people who work in the stables along the backstretch are Hispanic migrants who typically come on work visas, sleep in heated dormitories near the barns and send much of their paychecks back home.
Their labor is tough and dirty. By 4:30 a.m. each day, most of the track employees are already up exercising the horses or cleaning the stalls. When Oaklawn’s racing season ends in April, the horsemen will move on to Churchill Downs in Kentucky or other tracks where another racing season is just starting.
The chaplaincy program helps provide some needed stability, said Reuben Rosas, a longtime groomer and now an assistant chaplain at Oaklawn.
“When people need to talk about problems at home or they feel lonely, we try to provide a little place where they can feel comfortable,” Rosas said. “The chapel feels like our home.”
Mann, 60, is an ordained chaplain in the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), and has served at racetracks across the country for about 18 years. He’s one of 88 chaplains who serve on 121 racetracks nationwide, according to the Race Track Chaplaincy of America.
Mann sees his role mainly as helping his flock integrate into American life — filling out tax forms and setting personal budgets. A certified addiction counselor, he also leads sessions for those dealing with drug and alcohol problems. He also gives out an emergency phone
number to track employees so they can call him any time.
“I had to make a change when I came to the backstretch,” said Mann, who began his career starting new congregations. “You can’t run it like a church. You can’t judge anybody. You have people come in with all types of problems and needs and situations.”
The racetrack chaplain movement began in 1971 under the leadership of a veteran racetrack employee named Salty Roberts, a born-again Christian who believed chaplains could help his colleagues deal with the rigors of the profession.
Some of the first racetrack chaplains were Southern Baptists, even though their denomination opposes gambling. Edward Smith, the national chaplaincy association’s director of missions, is the son of a Southern Baptist pastor and an ordained Baptist pastor himself.
“I actually voted against the racetrack that came into Lone Star Park (in Grand Prairie, Texas),” Smith said. “God has a great sense of humor, and I got involved with the council (that supports) the chaplain of the racetrack I voted against.”
Because of the gambling issue, many Southern Baptists were initially leery of supporting racetrack chaplains, Smith said. But that’s beginning to change.
“If I’m a minister involved in drug and alcohol programs, people don’t accuse me of pushing drugs and alcohol,” he said. “We as ministers don’t make any judgments on any of the workers or the people who are involved in horse racing. We’re simply there to provide the Good News and care for people.”
Mann usually arrives at the track around 8:15 a.m., reads a thought for the day over the track’s loudspeakers and then walks around the barns, talking to the workers. He is available for counseling sessions and Bible studies throughout the day.
He leads worship at the backstretch chapel each Tuesday night — the one day when no races are scheduled. Typically between 80 and 100 people attend. He also leads a service each Sunday morning for track employees such as clerks and parking attendants who work on the “front side” of the park.
It’s not just employees who seek Mann’s guidance. He has even ministered to regulars at the tracks where he’s worked. In Charles Town, W.Va., he said there was one frequent gambler who often made fun of him every time he walked through the betting parlor.
“He’d say, ‘Here comes the chaplain. Put away your billfold,’” Mann recalled.
But when the gambler lay dying, he asked to see the “track chaplain.”
“He said he wanted to be baptized,” Mann said. “I couldn’t take him to the river. But as a chaplain, I had to make it work. I put some water in a salt shaker and baptized him days before he died.”
Altogether, Mann said, he ministered to 20 people at the Charles Town track right before they died.
Mann’s first chaplaincy jobs were at part-time tracks that needed him only a few months of the year. During the off-season, he cleaned carpets, drove a UPS truck and did various other jobs to make ends meet.
Oaklawn, though, plans to employ him all year long.
“I would have a hard time going back to pastoring a church,” Mann said. “We have more action in one day than I saw at church in months.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — A version of this story first appeared in the Arkansas