Eclipse Sportswire founder Scott Serio captured a day in the life of a race track chaplain during Breeders' Cup week. Enjoy the story & accompanying slideshow below.
This Is My Office
This Is My Office
- Images by Eclipse Sportswire
"Which horse has the second fastest time for the Kentucky Derby?" is the question Reverend Ken Boehm poses to the jockey's room at Churchill Downs before he begins his daily prayer. Everyone knew the answer for the fastest - Secretariat. From the other side of the room a couple of jockeys answer Monarchos. Retired jockey Richard Migliore happens to be visiting the jock's room. He is in town for the 2011 Breeders’ Cup and offers up the correct answer. "Sham has the second fastest."
The story of Sham will offer the root of Boehm's morning prayer for the riders. He bows his head. The clatter in the room subsides. Calvin Borel turns away from his Daily Racing Form and focuses on Boehm.
Now, to a room of bowed heads, Boehm implores them to do their best, even if their best doesn't result in a victory, and then to return safely. Before leaving, he visits with jockeys Shane Sellers and Borel. He also checks in with several valets. Then Reverend Boehm is off to make hospital visits.
As the chaplain for Churchill Downs, Reverend Boehm is the spiritual leader for more than 1,000 workers, representing 34 countries. He was originally a minister in Cleveland, Ohio. “I just felt like I was doing maintenance,” he said, “Everyone there was already interested in religion. I felt like I needed to reach more people.”
Boehm heard about the Racetrack Chaplaincy program through a friend and decided to make a change in his life. He became the chaplain at Tampa Bay Downs. He spent 13 years in Tampa and then made the move to Louisville.
After taking the escalator down from the jock’s room, Boehm stops in the paddock. He exchanged a few “how are you’s” and “is everything OK” with a handful of workers and then paused a moment, leaning up against the fence.
Ken Boehm has been the chaplain at Churchill Downs since Pat Day recruited him to fill the position nine years ago. Until Boehm, there were only part-time pastors at Churchill. In the shadows of the Twin Spires, one of the iconic landmarks in sport, he reflects, “This is my office. Can you believe that?”
When Boehm arrived at Churchill, there was no chapel. He held services in the recreation room with Bet and Cash windows as the backdrop. His altar was a folding table.
Now, Churchill Downs’ Christ Chapel is the true home to his ministry. According to Boehm, “It is built on the word of God.” It is an inside ecclesiastical joke because, at the groundbreaking for the chapel, Pat Day and Winstar Farm’s Elliott Walden among others read passages from four separate Bibles. Those Bibles were sealed and buried at the four corners of the new building. While the construction of the church was not free, the rent is definitely cheap. Churchill Downs provides a $1 a year lease for the parcel of land on which the chapel is built.
Boehm’s ministry is not limited to humans. On many occasions he is called to pray for equine parishioners. The prayers are never to win, only to recover from an ailment or to finish an upcoming race safely.
Of those Boehm visits frequently are the Jones, Larry and Cindy. It was Boehm who Cindy Jones turned to when Eight Belles suffered a catastrophic injury following the 2008 Kentucky Derby. “He needs you,” Cindy told Boehm.
Boehm entered the darkness of Eight Belles empty stall and sat with a distraught Larry Jones. “We just sat there for an hour and prayed and cried,” said Boehm. Then as Larry Jones got up to face the media, Boehm asked Larry Jones to stay for one more short prayer.
Boehm and Jones knelt. “Lord, grant Larry the strength to face whatever questions people have for him when he leaves here, even the stupid ones.” The first person Jones encountered as he emerged asked, “Larry, how do you feel?” Jones could only look back at Boehm and smile.
Whether it is a horse, a backside worker he just met or an old friend in the likes of legendary Pat Day, Boehm is seemingly in a constant state of prayer. He is quick with a smile, a handshake or the gentle placement of his hand on a shoulder.
It was with Pat Day, just outside of the chapel, that he began his morning. Day asked Boehm to pray for his wife who was sick and in the hospital. Through the window of Day’s vehicle, the two embraced and joined in prayer.
The list of those in need is long. Boehm keeps several index cards with him so he can write down those in need of prayer, or those in need of assistance.
There are also prayer boards for those who cannot catch up with Boehm but want people remembered. Boehm doesn’t want to forget anyone. As he navigates shed row, Boehm spends equal time with trainer Nick Zito, trainer Helen Pitts, owner Ken Ramsey and several other grooms and hotwalkers. He stops briefly in Tom Amoss’ barn to add Sheila Day to their prayer board.
Ken Boehm’s ministry isn’t just about prayer. In the course of this day, Boehm will find a new mattress for someone who needs one, host a breakfast for backside employees, schedule a wedding, work on connecting one backside worker with family members in another state and visit a backside employee who was found unconscious after falling off a horse.
The fact this week is Breeders’ Cup week makes things only that much more hectic for Boehm. There is a wedding to perform, possibly in the winner’s circle or maybe in the paddock. There were also the White Horse Awards, a yearly event sponsored by the Racetrack Chaplaincy to honor a backside worker who performed a heroic deed. As this year’s host, Boehm has numerous responsibilities.
He sits at his desk with his tie untied. Boehm looks like a frantic businessman until you look at the tie. “This is my wedding tie,” he says, “It has my favorite passage of scripture on it, Corinthians 13, it is the one I read at all my weddings.”
He manages to find his inspiration for his “Minute With God” while finalizing the arrangements for the ceremony. Each day Boehm shares a moment of prayer with the entire backside at Churchill using the loudspeaker system. It also serves as a way to let workers know about planned outreach efforts like a medical screening or a meal at the chapel.
Boehm completes one final task and heads from the backside to Churchill Downs’ main grandstand. Boehm gives each couple he marries a racing program from the day of the ceremony. “I tell them there is lots of good information in this book to help you have a successful day at the track,” adding, “Just as there is ample information in the Bible to help you have a successful marriage.”
Weddings are but one of Boehm’s official tasks as chaplain. In 2010, he says he officiated 31 funerals, 17 weddings and 13 christenings. He is a busy man who manages to relate with Churchill executives and someone mucking a stall with equal aplomb.
When asked to consider the course of events that brought his family and him from Cleveland to Churchill, Boehm’s answer is simple, “I keep telling my daughter that we are blessed. This isn’t normal that we get to rub elbows with millionaires and they treat us as equals.” He pauses a moment and adds, “Then I tell her, one day, you will be in a position where you have more than the other person, and remember times like this and treat those who have less as your equal.”