A stone’s throw from Belmont Park‘s Stable Gate 6, about two dozen men and women unsnap the legs of folding tables, carry food items from bulky cardboard boxes to those tables, and meticulously position the items in neat rows. In a final touch, they vigorously shake cans of spray paint before releasing a stream of white that kisses the asphalt to create squares to remind people to practice social distancing.
Thursday is food pantry day for the Belmont backstretch community, and the person at the center of it all is chaplain Humberto Chavez.
Chavez is joined by his small staff and a flock of enthusiastic volunteers. The pantry offering, which takes place once a week throughout the year, is always well attended, but during the unprecedented times of COVID-19, the needs of the backstretch workers took on an urgency not previously seen. Numbers grew to about 300 individuals coming to get food for themselves and their families, compared with pre-pandemic numbers of 150-180.
In explaining the chaplaincy’s mission, Chavez, 43, shares the philosophies of Horace “Salty” Roberts, late founder of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, established in 1972.
“There is a spiritual aspect…listen, if someone is hungry you can’t just say, ‘Hey, there’s God,'” he says. “You feed them first because they are hungry and then you move forward to expressing the importance of who God is in their lives.
“We just want to let people know there is a God, and we’re going to be here. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from—whatever social, educational, financial background you have, we’re still here for you.”
Between unloading boxes of food and directing traffic at the food pantry, Chavez stops often to place a hand on the shoulder of a volunteer, many of whom are the teenaged children of backstretch workers. He asks them how they are doing. A genuine warmth radiates from the chaplain, and people around him react in kind.
In March, when COVID-19 began to unleash its fury on the New York metro area, the focus of the chaplaincy—and the rest of New York’s racing community—pivoted dramatically.
As New York City and its surrounding boroughs and counties were besieged by hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, Belmont Park, located in the town of Elmont in Nassau County, did not escape unscathed.
With a population of approximately 600 backstretch workers living in dormitories on the property, and another 200 living off property, the environment was ripe for the spread of the highly contagious virus. The New York State’s Department of Health warned that the nature of Belmont’s working and living environment could act as a tinderbox for the virus.
Racing at Aqueduct Racetrack was suspended March 19, when the New York Racing Association reported its first case of COVID-19 from a worker on the Belmont backstretch. Training of Thoroughbreds continued, but the chaplaincy, in conjunction with NYRA, the Backstretch Employee Service Team, and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, worked swiftly to put best practices in place to mitigate the number of infections.
People who exhibited signs and symptoms of the virus were quickly quarantined, and those in close contact with those people were told to self-isolate. Workers, both those who lived on the grounds and those who resided off the property, were educated in the importance of hand-washing, wearing face masks, and social distancing. The use of sanitization products became as commonplace as tack cleaners.
“If the chaplaincy didn’t collectively do that with NYTHA, NYRA, B.E.S.T—all of us saying the same thing to keep our folks healthy—it would have spread like wildfire,” Chavez recalls.
The chaplain and his staff reached out by phone and texts to inquire how people in quarantine were doing. But it wasn’t always enough for him and his wife, Karen, general manager of the chaplaincy, to communicate via phone. While taking the necessary precautions, they personally visited those in quarantine.
“People needed to see us,” the chaplain says. “They were scared to death. They wanted to know what was going to happen to them—if they were going to die or be intubated. There was a lot of making sure the anxiety levels weren’t going through the roof.”
Spectator-free racing resumed at Belmont June 3. By June 16 just three backstretch workers were quarantined because they had tested positive for COVID-19, and another 82 had already recovered from the virus, with one fatality—63-year-old Martin Zapata. That number, Chavez said, is below half of what the NYSDOH projected.
Eleanor Poppe, a staff and board member of the New York division of the chaplaincy, said she isn’t surprised to see the chaplain and his wife step up so admirably when life on the backstretch became so fraught.
“They are the same way they have always been, but the situation has risen to their level as opposed to them rising to the situation,” Poppe said. “They were already there. This is where they are meant to be. This moment is for them. And they are literally saving lives. There has been a lot of fear, and they are allaying those fears.”
The Chavezes have worked over the past 17 years to provide a safe and nurturing haven for those who work on the backstretch in New York. The chaplain came to the United States from Mexico City with his mother when he was in fourth grade, following his parents’ separation. Chavez and his mother first lived in Miami, before moving less than a year later to New York. After graduating high school, Chavez worked in construction and also worked at his brother-in-law’s church in Long Island, which liaised with the chaplaincy on the Belmont Park backstretch.
Chavez was struck by how much need there was at the racetrack and when chaplain James Watson, who was retiring, reached out to him asking if he would like to apply for the job, it represented that proverbial “fork in the road.”
“It was all God-ordained. Never in my wildest dreams would I have said that I’m going to New York Theological Seminary to be a chaplain,” he says. “But when you open your heart and just let God be God in your life, He has things in store for you where you can be a blessing for others, and that has been always our intent in this industry.”