The Backside

Beyond the grandstand at Canterbury Park, where horseracing isn't the only religion

On the backside, Tuesday is the day of the Lord. Sundays are reserved for the racetrack's other religion.

Roughly 20 people have gathered this evening in Canterbury Park's makeshift chapel. The room is packed with a hodgepodge of chairs and couches. A simple portrait of Jesus and a seven-foot-high wooden cross are the only signs that this is a house of worship. There's also a TV, a set of golf clubs, and an American flag. The religious informality extends to the parishioners, who are partial to jeans, T-shirts, and cowboy boots. The aroma from a half-dozen pizzas provides indisputable proof of the benefits awaiting the faithful.

"There's two reasons to be here this evening," declares chaplain Tommy Bartram. "To bless the Lord, and to defeat Satan." His Southern drawl and Coppertone tan betray the fact that up until ten days ago he'd never set foot in the state of Minnesota. But at Canterbury, Bartram is by no means an outsider. He has spent practically his entire 30 years on the backside of horse tracks, and the essential rhythms don't vary much from Ocala, Florida, to Shakopee, Minnesota. Last month Bartram made the 18-hour drive north from Louisiana, where for the past year he'd worked as an assistant chaplain at racetracks in New Orleans and Shreveport. He inherited a flock at Canterbury that in recent years has numbered in the single digits.

Richard Fleischman

Bartram leads his ramshackle chorus in an off-key rendition of "Amazing Grace," accompanied by a guitarist. Though the chaplain has written out the lyrics by hand and made photocopies, many of the worshipers don't speak much English and only a handful sing along. Spanish-language chatter from a TV in the adjoining rec room doesn't help matters.

Bartram avails himself of a boom box for a few more songs, passes around a baseball cap for the offering, and then gets to the main topic of this

evening's service: the unconditional love of God. This lesson he illustrates with a passage from the Gospel according to John in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Horse trainer Armando Vargas translates into Spanish.

The chaplain reinforces the message with an anecdote from his own life on the track. Three years ago, he says, he checked into the hospital for a routine surgical procedure to correct problems caused by old injuries to his hand. The anesthetic caused his lungs to collapse. Instead of leaving that day, Bartram remained in the hospital for a month, dependent on an oxygen tank to breathe. "I should have died," he says. Even after going home, he was plagued by short-term memory loss: One time he borrowed his brother-in-law's truck and couldn't remember whom it belonged to; another time he stood up a woman on a date. "I was really struggling to get back on my feet," he tells his parishioners. "Finally the Lord said to me, 'Quit feeling sorry for yourself and get on with your life.'" Bartram promptly shuttered the moving business he'd operated for three years, began riding horses again, and eventually moved to Louisiana to become a chaplain.

"I just felt like the Lord was calling me back to the racetrack," he says after the service. "It was the Lord's will, and that's why I'm here. I heard the Lord saying, 'Instead of winning races, I want you to win souls.'"

Denizens of the backside are well aware of their own mortality. Horseracing is a brutal business. In Bartram's years as a jockey, trainer, and chaplain, he has broken fingers, lost a tooth, destroyed his back, broken his nose, and fractured both feet. He has been run over by horses and had his hand crushed in the starting gate. There's a metal plate in one of his hands and titanium in his back. But despite this litany, Bartram has seldom questioned his career choice. His father was a jockey; so was his grandfather. In his entire life he's spent only six years away from the track. "I love the life," he says. "Of course, it's all I've ever known."

Bartram's role on Canterbury's backside is more than that of preacher. People call him when they need spiritual guidance, and they call him when they need to find a dentist. In the month that he has been on the job, he has dealt with domestic disputes and drinking problems, organized a softball league and English classes. He has plied his craft in hospitals and at a memorial service. "Sometimes people need God with skin," says Bartram. "I heard a kid say that one time, and it's true. I believe firmly that the best thing that God ever gave us, right after salvation, was other people."

 

From the top of the grandstand, Canterbury Park's backside doesn't look much different from the planned communities that have sprung up around Shakopee: 33 cookie-cutter buildings laid out in neat symmetrical rows, along with a larger structure surrounded by cars and trucks.

Up close, it becomes clear that this planned community is unique. The roads on the backside are dirt. Transportation is often via bicycle or golf cart. The 33 buildings are the barns, capable of housing more than 1,500 horses, plus several hundred horsemen and horsewomen. The large gray building contains administrative offices, a cafeteria, and a rec room. A distinct but not unpleasant odor of manure pervades the air.

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