It is winter, and bitter cold at Aqueduct when Humberto Chavez receives a call from a member of his congregation. "Chaplain, I'm at the racetrack and I need to speak with you. It's urgent."
Ten minutes later, Luis Ugarte is perched on the arm of a sofa across from the chaplain's desk. He has walked across the backside from his job at Dominic Galluscio's barn, and slush drips from his heavy work boots to form a grey puddle on the linoleum floor as he shares his concerns.
"I have a friend of mine, Juan Plaza. He's an exercise rider, and he just doesn't seem to be himself. For the past two days, he walks up and starts to speak to you, but then he just goes 'Hhhhmmmm ... I forgot what I was going to say.' There's something wrong with him. Back in December he fell off a horse, and ever since that day he hasn't been the same. If you ask him a question, even if it's real simple, he takes five or 10 minutes to answer. And sometimes, when you give him a leg up, he just falls off the other side of the horse. Something isn't right."
"OK, I'll talk to him and see if I can find out what's going on," Chavez says. "If you see him this afternoon, send him over. Otherwise, I'll page him tomorrow."
Harsh winds howl down out of a slate-gray sky, driving sharp needles of rain against barn roofs and turning the track into a sloppy sea of mud as Chavez drives to his office the next morning. He pauses at the security office to make his morning announcements over the PA system, including a call for Plaza. Then he stops by the track kitchen to pick up a cup of coffee.
Television monitors above the counter are playing TVG's latest show, "The Works," broadcasting live from sunny California. As usual, the local trainers are complaining about the weather.
"Look at that guy, he's wearin' a short-sleeved shirt!"
"It's probably 75 degrees in L.A."
"Would somebody please remind me why I'm in New York?"
After a week of constant showers, racing is out of the question. The announcement that cancels Wednesday's card comes as no surprise. One by one, the horsemen drain their coffee cups and head for home. Ten minutes later, the kitchen is deserted.
Outside of the chaplain's office, three grooms, two hot walkers, a trainer and an exercise rider linger in the driving rain. Shoulders hunched beneath turned-up coat collars, they wait for a chance to speak with Chavez. It's a usual sight for the chaplain, whose office is packed from the moment he opens the doors until he locks up to head home for the night.
At Aqueduct, where approximately 300 people make up the backside population, meeting the chaplain can be a hit-or-miss opportunity. His office is filled with a never-ending stream of workers, people who ship in from Florida or Kentucky or Mexico, not to mention those going back and forth between training barns at Belmont Park and Saratoga -- a total of 2,700 to 3,000 individuals on the New York Racing Association circuit.
This has been Chavez's life since 2004, when he took over the massive duties of the New York chaplaincy. Most chaplains are responsible for just one racetrack -- for instance, in Kentucky, Churchill Downs and Keeneland Race Course have separate chaplaincies -- but because the three New York tracks are operated by the same franchise, Chavez is responsible for them all.
Most chaplains are responsible for just one racetrack, but because the three New York tracks are operated by the same franchise, Chavez is responsible for them all.
He parks the car and sloshes through the puddles toward the eager group.
"Martin! Good to see you. Carl, come on in ..."
One by one, the workers file into the tiny office, wet boots squeaking across the worn floor. One of the grooms removes a waterlogged wool cap, and a trickle of black dye-water runs across his glove. Chavez takes a seat behind his desk. "OK, guys, who wants to go first?"
Carl, the trainer, is the first to step up. He wants to recommend a worker for NYRA's "Groom of the Month" award program. Easy enough. Chavez processes the paperwork. The hot walkers need winter coats. Chavez takes three out of the chaplaincy's clothing closet. The grooms are interested in the new backside insurance program. The chaplain sends them to the human resources office.
Then Juan Plaza steps forward. He is polite, but cautious. He isn't in trouble, doesn't need anything, so why should the chaplain call him? Chavez gets straight to the point.
"I heard you had an accident in December -- are you all right? Should I make a doctor's appointment?"
Plaza seems ready to reply, but then he pauses, confused. "Ummmm ... could you repeat that question?" he asks. "I didn't quite follow you."
Humberto Chavez doesn't overreact to crisis. He is steady and easygoing, anchored deep in his faith, rarely shaken. Faced with overwhelming issues, he takes his time, a rock of stability in the racetrack's vast river of troubles. He is dedicated to his calling, and to his flock.
But the exercise rider's problem is different. It defies logical explanation. Plaza's trackside spill in mid-December wasn't a nasty incident. He'd been back on a horse the next morning. Since there was no apparent injury, everyone has forgotten about the situation. But now Chavez is concerned. He feels an inexplicable sense of urgency, as if Plaza is in need of immediate medical attention. There is no apparent reason for this reaction. The exercise rider has already gone two months without seeing a doctor. Still, the chaplain just can't shake the feeling that something must be done right away.
Chavez knows a doctor, one of the physicians who takes care of many injured exercise riders and jockeys at the track. He calls him up and begs, "Listen, you've gotta see this guy from the track. Please, it's pitiful, you have to give him an appointment right away."
The doctor clears his calendar. Chavez tells Plaza, "Get in my car, I'm taking you to the hospital." He closes the office. Within minutes, they're speeding down the Belt Parkway.
At the hospital, Plaza's condition becomes even more frustrating. The doctor performs a routine checkup. Plaza is healthy. The doctor runs a series of neurological tests. Plaza's nervous system is fine. Then the doctor attempts to run a memory test.
"Count backwards from three for me."
Plaza freezes. "I can't. There's nothing there."
The doctor frowns. "Nothing? You're sure?"
Plaza just keeps shaking his head.
"I'll help get you started. Count one-two-three ... backwards."
"I can't do it," Plaza replies. "I just can't do it."
The doctor takes Chavez aside. "There's something strange going on here," he says, "but don't worry about it. We'll run a CT scan and see what's wrong. You can take him back to the track after we do the scan -- I'll call you when I read it."
Chavez waits while the hospital staff completes the CT scan. Then Plaza comes out, and the two prepare to leave. As they're walking out the door, a technician halts them.
"You want the doctor to see these images before you go, right?" she asks.
"No, he's supposed to call me if something is wrong," Chavez replies. "We're heading back to the track."
That person you're with should be dead right now! He has a severe blood clot to his brain. His whole skull, all the way down to his chin, is full of fluid. We should be taking him into the operating room. Get him back here! He could die any minute!
”-- Physician, friend of Humberto Chavez
The technician incredulously allows them to leave. Five minutes later, Chavez's cell phone rings. It's the doctor, and his panicked voice screams over the hum of the car's engine.
"That person you're with should be dead right now! He has a severe blood clot to his brain. His whole skull, all the way down to his chin, is full of fluid. We should be taking him into the operating room. Get him back here! He could die any minute!"
Chavez goes numb. "Wow! And he's sitting right next to me!" he thinks. Then he realizes the gravity of the situation. Turning to the exercise rider, he says calmly: "The doctor says we need to go back. Your condition is very serious. They need to operate on you today."
"No matter what they do, it can't be worse than this," Plaza replies. "I just got a splitting headache."
"Oh, Lord, here we go!" Chavez says. He throws his car into a quick U-turn. They head back to the hospital.
The doctors drain the fluid and remove the blood clot. Chavez is at the hospital from 10 in the morning until 11 that evening. Juan Plaza comes out of surgery holding the chaplain's hand.
"He came in just in time," the doctor remarks. "If he had gone another day without that operation ... I just don't think he would have survived."
The story doesn't stop with Plaza, and the work doesn't end there. Year-round, Chavez and his wife Karen and those who work with them at the New York Race Track Chaplaincy maintain a full-speed pace. Once spring arrives, Belmont's season hurtles into the chaos surrounding the Triple Crown. Then, when the hectic Saratoga summer meet is over, the chaplain heads straight into back-to-school season, managing an intense program that provides backpacks full of materials to about 350 children of backside workers.
In October, there's the fall harvest party, collaboration with a local church to bring families -- many of them divided between the tracks -- together. Then there's the fall soccer season. In November, they deliver Thanksgiving baskets with more than 300 turkeys and boxes of groceries to backside workers.
December brings work with Anna House, the daycare center at Belmont and Christmas parties and the distribution of hats and gloves collected during the chaplaincy clothing drives. And then it's back to the stick-it-out months of January and February, while the ministries continue and hundreds turn to Chavez for spiritual, physical and emotional help.
Not all of the stories have a happy ending. But thanks to the chaplaincy, many will. As for Plaza, he'll be fine. He'll pass his post-op tests with flying colors. He'll be given medical clearance to ride again. Most importantly, he'll be reunited with his family with a new appreciation for life and a practical understanding of Christian love.
And that makes Humberto Chavez's job worth doing.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.