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Published Mar 1, 2024
by Mike Henry
Race Track Chaplaincy of America-Tampa Bay Downs Division President Sharyn Wasiluk and her husband, trainer Peter Wasiluk, Jr., outside the group's office.

As the president of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America’s Tampa Bay Downs Division for 22 years, Sharyn Wasiluk has been committed to meeting the needs of the Oldsmar oval’s backstretch workforce.

Whether spearheading the annual “Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament fundraiser, which is scheduled Monday at Lansbrook Golf Club in Palm Harbor; enrolling grooms, hotwalkers and stable hands in continuing education classes; helping to schedule medical and dental appointments; organizing activities such as soccer tournaments, fishing trips and movie nights; or going on grocery runs for those without transportation, Sharyn has served on the front lines.

But since arriving at Tampa Bay Downs in November for the current meet with her husband of 38 years, trainer Peter Wasiluk, Jr., Sharyn’s health has rapidly declined. Diagnosed last year with aphasia – the gradual loss of the ability to understand or express speech – Sharyn also suffers from vascular dementia, resulting in problems with reasoning, planning, judgment and memory.

Sharyn, 76, experienced a couple of mini-strokes two years ago that originally went undiagnosed. For about a year, Peter still was able to understand her without much difficulty.  As recently as last summer at Colonial Downs in Virginia, she was able to perform her usual barn duties and ride her pony during morning training sessions and in the post parade before races, leading Peter’s horses to the starting gate.

But a couple of falls – the first in early November, when she fractured her sacrum, and the second on Jan. 15, when she fractured her left wrist – have left family members searching for solutions where none seem within reach.

The first fall resulted in a weeklong hospital stay, followed by 10 days in rehabilitation. Since her second fall, she cannot participate in the daily routine of training and caring for Thoroughbreds, becoming a mostly passive observer at their barn and around the Tampa Bay Downs chaplaincy office.

“At the chaplaincy Christmas party for the backstretch workers and their families, she was able to hand out presents to the children and make a little speech,” Peter said. “She can’t do those things anymore.”

Sharyn still enjoys going to the office to visit the staff and backstretch workers, but no longer takes an active role in planning and activities. She recognizes close friends and other horsemen, but the inability to greet them verbally can lead to frustration.

“When she came back from her first fall, she was not able to ride her pony but she still could walk horses, clean stalls, clean tack and hold horses for the blacksmith,” Peter said. “But since her second fall, she has not been able to do anything at the barn. (Her doctor says) it is not so much a physical thing as it is related to dementia.

“Conversation has become very hard. She’ll try to tell me she wants something, but I can’t always figure it out,” he said. “She can get angry very easily, and she doesn’t always know where she is. She gets anxiety attacks – the first time I witnessed one, I thought she was having a heart attack.”

Peter often arrives at the barn by 3 a.m. to feed his string of 10 horses. Son Phil Wasiluk, who will be the assistant racing secretary at Delaware Park this year and is currently performing digital tattooing of racehorses for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, will bring Sharyn to the barn around 6:30.

After visiting her 28-year-old stable pony Stillwell, Sharyn spends much of her time in a tack room with her cat Kiki until Peter is ready to take her home. “It’s not ideal, but I don’t want to leave her at home by herself,” Peter said. “When I’m not home, she doesn’t really understand what I’m doing here – just that I’m not with her.”

Her condition has taken a toll on her family, who rely on their faith to get through each day without crumbling under the strain.

“I really feel that what’s so frustrating for all of us is there was no way to prepare for it,” said daughter Jaclyn Reyes, a library media technology specialist at Cypress Woods Elementary School in nearby Palm Harbor. “From her being able to do so much, to not being able to do almost anything. … She is still there, but she’s not the same person she has been.

“A lot of times, we have no idea what to say or do. She’ll be really confused, and we’ll think ‘Do we correct her, or not?’ One of the hardest parts is no one has given us much information. Our dad is starting to go to support groups, and we hope that starts to help.”

Meanwhile, Sharyn has started attending adult day care in Oldsmar two days a week. Peter spends a lot of time on the phone with doctors, Medicare and Eldercare exploring care options, describing it as “an unbelievably long process to get help.”

Calling Sharyn “the strongest woman I’ve known,” he struggles to formulate plans for the immediate and long-term future.

“If I can’t train horses, I still have to have a job because I can’t afford to retire,” Peter said. “Taking care of the horses and her too – you just can’t take a break. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. At some point, she is going to need more care than I can provide. She needs help dressing, going to the bathroom and showering. She is cold all the time, and she wants to sleep a lot.”

There are times when Sharyn – who until two years ago also served as a board member for the track’s Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association – seems her former self. Her face lights up around familiar people, as when Peter took her to the paddock on Wednesday before the second race. Seeing her grandchildren – Phil’s son Noah, 14, and Jaclyn’s son Elijah, 7, and daughter Jordyn, 4 – brings her great joy.

But the overriding sense of uncertainty about the future grows deeper. “It seems like no one can tell us anything,” Jaclyn said. “Our dad is OK with the idea of a nursing home, but no one really seems to have an idea how long that would be for.

“He was going to the rehab facility to see her multiple times a day. I don’t know how he keeps track of everything, but if he wasn’t a trainer he’d be a very good medical assistant.”

The Wasiluks have always been a racetrack family. Sharyn, who is from Jamestown, N.Y., and Peter, from southern New Jersey, met at Penn National more than 40 years ago and have competed at a variety of northern and mid-Atlantic tracks.

They have trained 912 winners between them, but Sharyn has found her work with the chaplaincy every bit as rewarding as entering winner’s circles. “When you think about it,” Sharyn said about 12 years ago, “the backside workers are the unsung heroes of our sport. They groom and walk the horses, feed and bathe them and muck their stalls, yet they rarely get any credit.”

Jaclyn says her parents have always provided for racetrack folks in need. “When we lived in New York, we had a couple of jockeys from Finger Lakes staying in our basement who needed a place,” Jaclyn recalled.

“That taught me that even if you don’t have a lot, there is always more you can do to help people and make a difference.”

Veterinarian Dr. Bill Owens, the Treasurer of the RTCA-Tampa Bay Downs Division, believes no one could have provided better leadership and support for those unsung heroes of horse racing than Sharyn.

Owens has spent enough time at the Wasiluks’ barn to gauge Sharyn’s exceptional horsemanship skills. “I could see she took care of their horses to the best degree possible,” he said. But it was her devotion to the chaplaincy, providing those unsung heroes with basic needs so they could give the horses the best care possible, where she made her mark.

It might have been three years ago, or five – Owens isn’t quite sure – when the track kitchen closed unexpectedly the day after the meet, leaving backstretch workers scrambling to secure three square meals for themselves as they continued to care for the Thoroughbreds waiting to be shipped northward to other tracks.

Sharyn sprang into action, purchasing a couple of hundred hot dogs, beans and potato salad to keep the engines humming.

“During the summers, she’d go to different yard sales up north and buy items we could auction off at the golf tournament to raise money for the chaplaincy,” Owens said. “In the days leading up to the tournament, she’d be in the office at 3 a.m. before training hours, putting together beautiful gift baskets for the auction.”

Sharyn would visit backstretch workers when they returned from a doctor’s appointment, making sure they were feeling better. “They appreciated someone was checking on them,” Owens said.

She was also instrumental in securing the funding for a lift to provide wheelchair access to the chaplaincy trailer.

If the chaplaincy can be described as the track’s heartbeat, Sharyn has been the soul behind its mission: “To bring the word of God and his teachings to the people at the racetrack to bring them to God and to make the chaplaincy the brightest light in the barn area.”

“I’ve worked with her all these years, but until she got sick and I had to do some of the things she does, I never realized what she put into the organization,” Owens said. “Those are huge shoes to fill. I know of nobody else who has put as much work, effort, thought and love, and care, into taking care of the people who work on the backside.”

Peter plans to bring Sharyn to Lansbrook Golf Club on Monday to see their friends and absorb as much of the celebratory atmosphere as possible. The “Hearts Reaching Out” benefit tournament is always held on the Monday before Tampa Bay Downs’s biggest racing day of the meet, the Festival Day card headlined this year on March 9 by the Grade III, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.

Peter hopes he can handle the outing with the same strength and grace Sharyn has displayed in her efforts to lift the Tampa Bay Downs backstretch community.

“She doesn’t really understand racing anymore, but she does miss riding her pony and the people she has dealt with over the years,” Peter said. “She loves seeing the starting gate crew and the pony riders. She still feels a real connection to these people.

“Lately, it seems like she is hugging everybody. She is big into hugging people she hasn’t seen for a while.”

Those hugs, it can be surmised, are tangible reminders of a heart that continues to reach out to those in need.

Openings remain for the 32nd annual “Hearts Reaching Out” tournament, which benefits the good works of the chaplaincy. There is a 1 p.m. shotgun start and the format is a four-person scramble. The $110 entry fee includes a boxed lunch, range balls, on-course contests, beverages and a goody bag.

Various sponsorship levels are also available. For details, call Chaplain Alex DeLima at (727) 242-2552 or Dr. Bill Owens at (813) 240-1340.




Race Track Chaplaincy of America-Tampa Bay Downs Division President Sharyn Wasiluk and her husband, trainer Peter Wasiluk, Jr., outside the group's office.

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