Instructor Anabel Feliu-West, standing, provides English language lessons to many of the track's backstretch workers
Backstretch workers often start their duties before dawn, and for many the day doesn’t end until the final race has been run and their horses cooled off and returned to their stalls. Although their contributions are easily overlooked, they are essential to ensuring a good show for the public.
At many Thoroughbred tracks, including Tampa Bay Downs, men and women from Mexico, Central America and South America who are in the United States on temporary worker visas are employed as grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders and stable hands. Opportunities for social and recreational activities are usually limited to non-racing days, and even then the needs of the equine athletes entrusted to their care take priority.
Locally, the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America ministers to the needs of the backstretch community by providing computer lessons, English language courses, church services, a weekly Bible study, softball tournaments and a helping hand to those in need. The local chaplaincy also arranged a trip to the Florida State Fair and is planning a March 14 fishing trip.
“People of all faiths are welcome,” said the chaplain, Ruben Columna. “We don’t change anybody, because the word of God is what changes you. Every time someone comes to our office on the backside, there is food and clothing for those who need it. We greet them with a big smile and do what we can to make them feel at home.”
Monday, for the 24th time, the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the RTCA will conduct its “Hearts Reaching Out” benefit golf tournament, dinner and charity auction to further the activities of the chaplaincy. There are still openings available for the tournament, a four-person scramble which begins at 11 a.m. at East Lake Woodlands Country Club in Oldsmar.
Following golf, a dinner, awards ceremony and live and silent auctions will be held on the first floor of the Tampa Bay Downs Grandstand beginning at 5 p.m. The cost is $100 for the tournament, dinner and auction; $20 to attend the dinner and auction only.
Proceeds benefit the chaplaincy and its mission of “providing, with excellence, for the spiritual, emotional, physical and social/educational needs of horse racing’s workforce.”
The “Hearts Reaching Out” event kicks off the track’s Festival Week, which culminates Saturday, March 12 with the most lucrative card in Tampa Bay Downs history, featuring the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby; the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf; the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks on the turf; and the $100,000 Challenger Stakes.
Twice a week, instructor Anabel Feliu-West of Plato Academy in Clearwater conducts two-hour class sessions for backstretch workers seeking to enhance their English speaking, writing and comprehension skills. A recent session included five grooms and hotwalkers from Mexico and Peru.
At the end of every lesson, Feliu-West, who is from Cordoba, Argentina, tests her students informally on what they have learned. Progress can be halting, but Feliu-West is impressed by the dedication of her students to get a better grasp on skills that can help them adjust to being in a new country.
Feliu-West describes her students as “simple people who are very humble.” She cherishes her role of helping them adapt to unfamiliar surroundings.
“I love that my students can speak English so they can express their wants and needs and how they feel. These are things that are essential when you need to communicate with others, and my goal is to give them the tools they need to reach that point,” she said.
“They always try to do their best, and for me that is enough. I don’t mind if they forget a homework assignment, because I understand their lives and their challenges. Sometimes I listen to their stories – family problems in their home countries, nostalgia about their culture – and I feel like I become a psychologist for them.
“They are getting paid better here than they would be in their own countries, but the feelings they have for their family and their friends there, that is the hard part,” Feliu-West said. “I have a student with a 5-year-old son who lives in Guatemala, and every time he comes here he tells me ‘I’m doing this because I want a better future for him.’ ”
Donors are asked to support the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the RTCA by playing in the tournament; as a volunteer; by sponsoring a golf hole for $125; by attending the dinner and purchasing an item in the live and/or silent auction; and by donating money or an auction item.
Sharyn Wasiluk, the President of the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the RTCA, and Office Manager Kathy Hand Frangos have assembled a wealth of auction items for Monday night’s gathering, including the following:
- A framed painting of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah by Tom Chapman.
- A Saratoga paddock painting by Joan MacIntyre.
- Barnwood art by Natalie Stanley.
- Horseshoe art by David Frangos.
- Framed photographs of Rachel Alexandra and Hall of Fame jockey and two-time Triple Crown winner Eddie Arcaro.
- A VIP package for four for the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
- A day at the races for six at Arlington Park.
- A Daily Racing Form Formulator online handicapping package, valued at $750.
- Various gift baskets and golf packages.
For details or to participate, call (813) 494-1870 or (813) 854-1313.