At Belmont Park, backstretch workers and their families gather every Sunday at the Belmont Chaplaincy’s recreation area for Mass. While the service is intimate, the space leaves something to be desired, and over the past year the Rev. Humberto Chavez has discussed plans with New York Racing Association officials to create a proper space for the chaplaincy to provide several services for Belmont Park workers.
With NYRA’s $6 million renovation of the Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct racetracks slated to begin this year, plans for a 5,000-square-foot, multipurpose chapel at Belmont Park are moving ahead. Chavez added that the New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America has raised more than half of the $800,000 needed to make it a reality.
Personal donations of $100,000 have been made by Lisa and Kenny Troutt of WinStar Farm; Chris Kay, NYRA’s CEO and president, and his wife, Kristine; and Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson.
"To have a facility like this has been a dream of mine for the past 15 years," said Chavez, who started his residency at Belmont in 2003. "Thanks to those who have already made commitments and to those who will be doing so, the backstretch community will now have a place where people can relax, unwind, worship and learn new skills."
In addition to a chapel, the center would also house offices, a food pantry and the Cot Classroom — named for the late Cot Campbell, a thoroughbred owner and longtime supporter of the chaplaincy — where workers could take classes on financial literacy, citizenship and culture issues, social advocacy and computers. Chavez also wants to set aside a small recreational area with televisions and a pool table where workers would be able to relax after a long day of work.
Chavez noted that backstretch employees work from as early as 4 a.m. to as late as 9 p.m. Because of their atypical work schedules, they depend on the services provided for them at Belmont. When Chavez first assumed the chaplaincy in 2003, he had one trailer. Back then, NYRA and the chaplaincy offered workers daycare for their children and access to a private healthcare facility, but for all other services, Chavez needed to connect them with resources outside Belmont Park.
Over the next decade, however, the chaplaincy expanded to meet the backstretch community’s needs. NYRA Board of Directors member Michael Dubb donated a second trailer in 2008 for the chaplaincy to house a larger food pantry and a tax-preparation office. Dubb has also committed to donating building materials for the new facility.
The Belmont Health Center joined with the Long Island Federally Qualified Health Centers in November, in a space that is open to the public. Paul Ruchames, executive director of the Backstretch Employee Assistance Team that runs the health center, said that most backstretch workers do not have cars, so they need services that are nearby.
“We educate them on what’s available to them so they can take advantage of all this and prevent them from doing anything reckless,” Ruchames said. “We used to see people working when they were sick or had problems because they’re hesitant to seek help.”
Chavez said that the new chaplaincy building would also be a public space for the larger community and would lie just inside of Gate 6, away from the ID-check entrances to the racetrack, allowing residents, civic leaders and elected officials to host meetings and events at Belmont.
Chavez said he hopes the Chaplaincy Center’s groundbreaking could happen this spring, with a completion date before the winter of 2021. Although several stable workers leave for Aqueduct and Saratoga throughout the year to follow the racing season, Chavez said the majority of workers and their families remain at Belmont.
“It really is just like a small town within the Floral Park, Elmont and Queens communities,” Chavez said. “The people have roots here, and we have to be here for them.”