by Mike Henry

The attention of the Thoroughbred racing community turns to Tampa Bay Downs for its Festival Day celebration on March 7, when the track stages one of the biggest days in its 89-year history.

Five days earlier, the spotlight shines on the people that make races such as the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby possible: the grooms, hot walkers, stable hands and exercise riders who toil in the background for the opportunity to share in their horses’ achievements.

On Monday, March 2, the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America holds its 23rd annual “Hearts Reaching Out” Golf Tournament, Dinner and Charity Auction benefit.

A full day of activities begins at 11 a.m. with a four-person scramble tournament at East Lake Woodlands Country Club in Oldsmar. Prizes will be awarded to the top three teams. At 5:30 p.m., dinner will be held at the track under the big tent in the Picnic Pavilion Area.

The cost is $100 for golf, dinner and the auction, $20 for dinner and the auction only. Proceeds benefit the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the RTCA. For details or to register, call Kathy in the Chaplain's office at (813) 854-1313 or Division President Sharyn Wasiluk at (813) 494-1870.

Bids will be accepted for various auction items during dinner, with the live auction beginning at 7 p.m. The chaplaincy has done an outstanding job gathering such diverse auction items as paintings by Tom Chapman; Brook Ledge vanning; Breeders' Cup baskets and memorabilia; rounds of golf, including carts, at various courses; custom jockey silks; Tampa Bay Lightning autographed memorabilia; a Haskell Day package from Monmouth; Skye Terrace lunch packages at Tampa Bay Downs; and gift cards from AAA Feed & Tack.

Also, deep-sea fishing half-day packages; a Daily Racing Formulator Online 240-Race Card Pack; an Indianapolis Speedway basket filled with Indy 500 memorabilia; Tampa Bay Rays ticket reservations; unique horseshoe art; barn-wood paintings; Kentucky Derby baskets; Tampa Bay Rowdies autographed memorabilia; and a one-night stay at Grand Hyatt Tampa with complimentary Sunday brunch at Oystercatchers.

The RTCA’s mission statement is described as “dedicated to providing, with excellence, for the spiritual, emotional, physical and social/educational needs of horse racing’s workforce.”

Tampa Bay Downs Division Chaplain Ruben Columna rides his bicycle daily around the backside of the track, greeting workers and ministering to their immediate and long-term needs. He has been impressed at the spirit of cooperation fostered by the racetrack lifestyle, but also finds his services in great demand among those struggling to eke out a living.

 “Each individual I come across has different needs, whether they are spiritual, emotional or financial,” Columna said. “Some are trying to make money to send to their families. We try to give them guidance and help fill their spiritual needs through the word of God.”

The Tampa Bay Downs Division of the RTCA also administers to backstretch workers with such events as a Monday evening church service in the makeshift chapel in the trailer on the backside; a Communion service the last Monday of every month; and a Thursday evening Bible study.

The chaplaincy also organizes soccer games using certified officials on the track’s backside each Monday and Tuesday, when there is no racing, and softball games every Friday night at Ed Radice Park in Tampa.

Other upcoming events include the annual fishing trip on the Queen Fleet out of Clearwater on March 23 and the annual Easter party on April 2. All of the chaplaincy’s activities are interdenominational.