CINCINNATI -- Sometimes Doug Eldridge gets funny looks when he tells people that he’s a racetrack chaplain.
In some religious circles, particularly Baptist ones, gambling is frowned upon, so the idea of a minister at an establishment that makes money from gambling doesn’t sit well with some folks.
“If you knew of a place where there were about 150 people who couldn’t drive to church and had lots of physical and spiritual needs, wouldn’t you want to take the word of God to them?” Eldridge asks them.
That’s what he’s been doing for backstretch workers at Turfway Park in Florence since 2013. And later this month, for the first time, he’ll do it for workers at Belterra Park Gaming and Entertainment Center in Cincinnati.
It’s the result of a partnership between the Louisville-based Kentucky Race Track Chaplaincy , which pays Eldridge’s salary for working at Turfway, and the Columbus-based Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association , an organization of thoroughbred owners and trainers, which has agreed to pay part of his salary for working at Belterra.
It’s a perfect fit, timing-wise, he said, because Turfway’s racing season ends this month and many of the workers there will move to Belterra for the next six months.
Protestants like Eldridge are not the only Christians concerned about workers at local racetracks. When he retired in 1995 as an active Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati , the Rev. Frank Niehaus started Backstretch Works of Mercy at Turfway and at Belterra (then called River Downs) to provide spiritual and physical help to the workers.
According to an Associated Press story from 2003, those needs would include celebrating Mass on Sunday, but they might also include providing a lawyer for a worker who got into a brawl. Niehaus died in 2013, and now other local priests celebrate Mass, including Chet Artysiewicz of the Glenmary Home Missioners in Fairfield.
When Artysiewicz celebrates Mass at Turfway, he takes novice priests to show them what it's like to do so in a nontraditional environment.
"The room is used as a lounge," he said. "There's a pool table to the left of the altar, there's a cigarette machine behind me."
Plus, a monitor on the wall pipes in racing data.
At Belterra, there's no keyboard, so he has accompanied the singing by playing on his accordion.
“We don’t compete,” Eldridge said of the priests. “Our goal is to meet the needs of the people on the backside.”
Eldridge’s duties at Belterra will be similar to those he has at Turfway: to conduct weekly worship services and meet the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of those who work the backstretch. About 150 of the workers live on the track, Eldridge said, but another 100-150 live off the track.
The on-track residents get free, dormitory-style housing, but the accommodations are Spartan: the largest rooms are 12 feet by 12 feet, Eldridge said, and residents must provide their own beds and furniture. They don’t have much disposable income. For example, horse walkers, who walk horses for 20 minutes after their workouts, get $5 per walk, and they might walk only five horses a day, he said.
Since most don’t have transportation, Eldridge takes them to doctor’s appointments. The past season was challenging, he said, because there were at least three workers who had surgery or chemotherapy treatments.
The names of those with medical needs wind up written on Eldridge’s prayer list, which grows ever longer as the season goes on. It hangs on a refrigerator in his office.
He gets help from several local churches, he said, especially those in the Erlanger-based Northern Kentucky Baptist Association . They prepare meals for the workers after the weekly chapel services on Monday nights, which Eldridge said typically draw 25-30 employees. They also provide coffee, hot chocolate, bagels, Ramen noodles and other hot food for breakfast six days a week at the track’s community center.
“The two coldest places in Northern Kentucky are the airport and the track,” Eldridge said.
And he has worked at both.
Eldridge, now 62, first did racetrack ministry in 1977 as the first track chaplain for Latonia Race Course, which became Turfway Park in 1986. He was a part-time student at the former Cincinnati Bible College (now Cincinnati Christian University ) at the time.
After the season ended, he took a part-time job as a minister in Grant County and volunteered as a police chaplain in Covington, where he became interested in law enforcement. He worked 23 years as an officer with the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport Police Department, where he was called “L-dog” because he worked with police dogs.
After he retired as a police officer, he worked 13 more years as a full-time minister at Hebron Church of Christ before taking the racetrack job, which he said is “night and day” different from being a pulpit minister.
At Belterra, he wants to offer most of the same services he offers at Turfway, including a trailer to provide used clothing, blankets, sheets and other necessities for the workers. He’d also like to screen Christian-themed movies for them.
Belterra doesn’t have some of the things he takes for granted at Turfway, he said, such as organized volunteer support from local churches. Recruiting that help will be his first prayer priority, he said, which he hopes to accomplish through his contacts at CCU and simply by contacting any churches near the track.
“I’ll be starting at ground zero at Belterra,” he said.