BALTIMORE -- Heads bowed, hands clasped, they stood in the jockeys' room at Pimlico Race Course, one hour to first post, as one of their own led the riders in prayer.
"Lord, take care of all those here who are risking their lives today -- the jockeys and gallop boys, the gate crews and trainers," Richard Monterrey implored. "As for those who've come to bet on the horses, we pray that you protect them, too."
Then the group dispersed to don their silks. Those who face danger each time they ride a 1,000-pound horse at speeds reaching 40 mph say that a prayer beforehand calms their nerves and anchors their lives.
"There's a lot of pressure and stress around here -- from the competition between riders to having to lose weight to the fear you feel before every race," said Carlos Lopez Jr., a jockey for 22 years. "Prayer gives you time to be at peace and pull yourself together, if only for a few minutes.
"I'll say, 'God, you're in control. Help me to ride this horse.' Ninety percent of stuff goes right when I leave it in God's hands. When I try to do it myself, everything goes wrong."
Each Saturday during racing season at Pimlico -- including this week's Preakness -- Monterrey gathers the riders for a brief service. He recites a Bible verse, then offers a prayer and God's blessing. A jockey from Venezuela who has won 740 races, Monterrey, 30, is also a youth pastor at Iglesia Cristiana Maranatha in Laurel.
"I have a burning desire to ride, but my passion is to bring the word of God to people in need, especially those in the backstretch," the grooms, hotwalkers and exercise riders, he said.
Nationwide, 32 tracks in 16 states have clergy who minister to workers, particularly the largely immigrant force who toil in the barn areas, according to the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, established in Lexington, Ky., in 1972.
"We help facilitate the needs of these people on a daily basis. We counsel, feed and clothe them when needed and drive them to the doctor because many don't have cars," said Omar Aracena, administrative director of the RTCA. "We're a social service agency with a spiritual person leading the way."
The chaplains themselves raise most of the money for their ministries, he said. The RTCA serves tracks in major racing states such as Kentucky, California, New York and Florida, but not Maryland, whose faith groups are not under that organization's umbrella. Of the Triple Crown ovals, only Pimlico lacks a pastor.
Monterrey hopes to change that. Long served by transient workers, Pimlico this spring began stabling thoroughbreds year-round, requiring a permanent barn staff. At Laurel Park, which does the same, Monterrey and his father-in-law, Dago Dupuy, an evangelical pastor, began their own racetrack ministry. They hold services each Saturday and on one Sunday each month in a makeshift chapel -- complete with benches and altar -- built in an old storage room. Attendance ranges from 30 to 45.
Dupuy, who is from Chile, started the program at Laurel 15 years ago when approached by a groom inquiring about God.
"We spoke through the fence 1/8at the track3/8 for a few minutes, agreed to meet again the next week, and soon I was preaching through that fence to a group of seven," said Dupuy, 58. Eventually, he received access to the backstretch and a place for worship.
Until recently, the Bowie Training Center had a similar setup. There, 30 to 40 backstretch employees met weekly in a refurbished kitchen for Bible study classes organized by Ronald Singh, an exercise rider from Odenton, and leaders of the Chesapeake Christian Fellowship Church in Davidsonville. With Bowie soon to shut down, Singh hopes to carry on at Pimlico.
"Those workers lead difficult lives, confined to a bunch of rooms with little entertainment," Singh said. "Most 1/8immigrant3/8 hotwalkers and grooms send money home, which eats into their pockets. It's easy for them to be drawn to the wrong side of the fence, to substance abuse and to fights. Knowing God can give them inspiration to live."
Jockeys' agendas are no different, said Alberto Delgado, 49, who has won nearly 3,000 races.
"Faith keeps you grounded through the ups and downs of a rider's life," Delgado said. "When you're young and successful, you can get carried away and start drinking and doing other stuff. I got 'saved' at 16, when I started riding. I'm not perfect, but 1/8God3/8 is a good anchor in my life."
While some jockeys tout their faith openly -- Hall of Famer Pat Day, a five-time Preakness winner, ended each victory with an index finger aimed toward heaven -- most do not, Delgado said.
"Some do it as a show thing," he said. "God says, 'Pray in the closet and I'll reward you in public.'"
A track chaplain might have helped him through tough times in the past, Lopez said.
"I used to have personal problems, and I felt the pressure of the job, and I drank," the jockey said. "I'd ride my races and then go to a bar by myself. Drinking helped me forget my problems. Then six years ago I said, 'I can't do this anymore.' I started going to church. I felt better. I stopped drinking and now I can deal with problems."
Lopez said he'd like to see "a little church" at Pimlico.
"I now pray before every race, but I'd like to have a place to go to relax and to talk to God," he said.
That will happen once Bowie closes and its backstretch workers pack up and move to Pimlico and Laurel, Monterrey and Singh said.
Bonnie Smerdon, an exercise rider at Pimlico, said she'd welcome a ministry there.
"I've had four deaths in my family in the past two years, including my husband, who was a jockey, and his mother, who sold racing programs here," said Smerdon. "I didn't know if I could go on, but the horses and God got me through it."
Moreover, she said, "faith is big in a business where, if you ride, you don't know which moment might be your last."
Amen to that, horsemen say. George Francoeur, who gallops thoroughbreds at Old Hilltop, figures that he has fallen "more than 30 times" while riding. A born-again Christian, he escaped with only a broken ankle.
"I'd like to believe someone was looking out for me," said Francoeur, of Laurel.
Though only 21, the routine is old hat for jockey Victor Carrasco.
"Every day, before my first race, I say 'God protect us and the horses.' And afterward I tell him, 'Thanks for giving me the opportunity to finish the race safe,'" Carrasco said.
In January, he won the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding apprentice, becoming the 10th Maryland-based jockey to do so. He is quick to share the limelight.
"With God, everything is possible," Carrasco said.
(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun
Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services