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The Backside

Richard Fleischman

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.

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.

Tommy Bartram lives in barn B1. Like all of the rooms, his is concrete-walled and measures roughly 12 feet square. The communal bathroom is down the hall. There is no kitchen. Many of the dorm rooms are occupied by two people, some by an entire family, but Bartram, who is single, has the place to himself. A mirror is propped against one wall. A small TV set sits in a corner above Bartram's cot. Various religious books are scattered about the room, along with assorted track memorabilia, including a commemorative plate celebrating the late Seattle Slew. Bartram could probably pack everything and clear out in five minutes, as he often had to do as a kid growing up on the track.

It's still dark out when Bartram's alarm clock sounds at five o'clock on this Saturday morning, though the grooms have already been up for an hour, preparing the horses for their daily exercise. After stealing an extra 15 minutes' sleep, Bartram pulls on jeans and a T-shirt, cowboy boots and leather chaps. Grabbing a helmet, protective vest, and riding crop, he steps outside into a steady rain.

In addition to his duties as chaplain, Bartram makes extra money galloping horses: $10 per mount, the standard rate at Canterbury. He usually limits himself to five or fewer rides per day, saving his energies for the ministry. "If I get on 15 to 20 horses, it does something to my body and I'm wired," he explains.

As it turns out, the chaplain could have slept in today: The first horse he was scheduled to exercise is under the weather and taking the day off. Bartram has better luck at the stables of Elery Scherbenske. He has two horses that need to run; his son, also a trainer, has another. Bartram climbs aboard a black mare, Scratch Again, and gallops off to the track.

Most of the people who work at Canterbury on a daily basis don't actually live on the backside. Scherbenske, for example, spends the season with his wife at an RV park along the Minnesota River in Shakopee, a popular temporary home for racetrackers. Others shack up at nearby hotels or rent houses. The people who inhabit the dorms either can't afford other accommodations or simply want to keep a close eye on their horses.

Tommy Bartram's translator, Armando Vargas, lives in barn C3. A 53-year-old native of Caracas, Venezuela, Vargas has been coming to Canterbury off and on since it opened in 1985, working as a groom and trainer. A neatly made single bed occupies one side of his room, while a flattened cardboard box is laid out on the other. (The latter, he says, is used to wipe the dirt from his shoes.) There is a clock radio, but no TV set. About a dozen empty beer cans sit on one shelf--relics, Vargas says, of a previous occupant. A white plastic bag covers the window to keep out the glare. "I don't need much," Vargas says in clipped but near-perfect English. "I just go to work."

Vargas, too, has been around horses his whole life. His family owned a thoroughbred farm outside Caracas. One of his brothers is a veteran jockey on the South American circuit; another used to train horses in Venezuela but is now trying to establish himself as a trainer at Delaware Park in Wilmington. Vargas, who has run horses in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Canada, and across the United States, pulls out pictures of himself standing triumphantly in the winner's circles at various tracks. "I always find some horses to train," he says. "Like I told my brother the other day: 'We're not doctors or engineers. What we know is racehorses. We compete.'"

Right now Vargas is struggling to get on his feet at Canterbury. He's working with three thoroughbreds, two of which are owned by a fellow trainer. Vargas's modest operation occupies four stables in barn C7. "This is my office," he says, swinging open the gate on the first stable, which contains a dilapidated two-person couch and a small desk. Plastic buckets, a bag of sweet feed, and various pieces of equipment litter the floor. "This is the life of a trainer. You are a gypsy."

 

The other three stalls are occupied by Vargas's equine charges. "This boy, he may be sick," Vargas frets, pointing out a thoroughbred lying idly on a bed of straw. "He has a little pain, maybe. He doesn't lie down, normally." In the next stall is Montanachartbuster. Despite the seven-year-old thoroughbred's boastful moniker, he hasn't had much success on the track. (In his one start this year at Canterbury, he finished last.) "This horse never did anything important in his life, but I believe he can come back," Vargas says. "I believe he can become a professional tracker."

Vargas says he's supporting a wife and daughter back in Caracas and has two grown children from a previous marriage who are attending college in Minnesota. "They know what hard work means," he says. "They know where I sleep here. They know how I travel to be able to make a living in this business. They know how tough life can be when you don't have a good profession."

The backside church is a necessary respite from the day-to-day grind, Vargas believes. "A lot of these people are away from their families," he notes. "A lot of these people, they get into alcohol and drugs and things because they have nothing to do, morning, night. They have to come and pray and feel good--do something different and be with people."

Racetracks are more often associated with sinners than saints. A recent article in Maxim declared horseracing "the most corrupt game this side of a Don King-run three-card-monte table" and "a $15-billion-a-year industry populated by every crook on two legs." (Of course, the magazine also spotlighted four horses to watch in the Kentucky Derby--only one of which actually ran in the race, finishing eighth.) TV evangelist Pat Robertson recently sold off his stable of 23 racehorses in deference to his followers' moral qualms.

But religion has always found a firm foothold on the track. Star jockey Pat Day famously came to Jesus in a Miami motel room in 1984. More recently, Patrick Valenzuela resurfaced at the top of the racing game after a drug- and alcohol-induced spiral left him in jail facing charges of armed robbery. He too credits Christ. On the backside it's often a battle between the bottle and the Bible: For a group of people who spend their lives on the road, isolated from society and their families and well accustomed to physical danger, the two often function as competing salves.

Vargas describes his own feelings about Christianity in practical terms: "Basically what I believe is, Jesus Christ was a good man. I have very simple thinking. I'm thinking that the man was true; he was a good man, and I wish to try and connect with him to see if he can't really give me some relief. I don't want to ask nothing for me. I just want to be asking for my family."

 

As race time approaches, a freshly showered Bartram descends into the bowels of the grandstand, to the jockeys' locker room and lounge. Jockeys and other personnel are lounging on sofas and watching TV. Seth Martinez, who is in a battle with Derek Bell to be the top rider this year, wanders past clad in a towel, two large tattoos of horses displayed on his back. Bartram strides through, clapping his hands and announcing, "Prayer time!"

At around noon Bartram leads the pre-race prayer in a small square room lined with the jockeys' peacock-bright silks. He reads a passage from the Book of Daniel, then talks briefly about battling temptation: "We must choose between what pleases God and what appeals to pleasure." The eight assembled jockeys bow their heads in prayer.

Mark Irving has good reason to seek the protection of prayer. On June 28 of last year, the jockey was barreling toward the finish line at Canterbury when the horse directly in front of his broke its leg. "He went down like a pile of bricks and I couldn't avoid him," Irving recalls. "I just pile-drived him. Sent me flying. I hit my head. Knocked me out. I was unconscious and woke up at Abbott [Northwestern Hospital]."

In addition to a concussion, Irving suffered a shattered wrist and a cracked elbow. The mishap marked the fourth year in a row he'd been knocked out of the saddle by injuries. (Previous accidents resulted in a broken collarbone, wrist, and ankle.) "It gets to a point where my family is like, 'Why are you doing this to yourself?'" he says. "But I enjoy it."

Last summer's injury has proven particularly troublesome. After being unable to ride for eight months, Irving raced for a time in New Zealand and his native England. But the extended hiatus from U.S. tracks has left trainers and owners leery of entrusting him with their mounts. "It makes it hard when you come back from something like this and people aren't willing to give you a chance. They're not quite convinced yet that I'm 100 percent, physically and mentally," he surmises, adding, "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't 100 percent sure that I could still do this."

 

Though he doesn't attend church regularly and has yet to attend chapel on the backside, Irving finds solace in the pre-race prayers, and he has sought out the chaplain to discuss his recent frustrations. "He can kind of relate to what we're going through, because he used to be a jockey," Irving says. "People are nervous before they ride. With the level of danger out there, it's always in the back of your mind. I think Tommy just relieves the anxieties of that--makes you feel protected out there--when he brings the faith to you."

Irving used to ride six or more races a day at Canterbury, but this afternoon he has just one mount, Premiere Dancer in the second race. It's an apt pairing: the horse has been sidelined as well, owing to a case of strangles, a highly contagious infectious disease that affects the throat. Despite the layoff, Premiere Dancer comes charging late from the back of the pack to claim third place, at 26-1. (Bartram doesn't wager on the races; he figures there are already too many racetrackers with gambling problems. "If I'm a minister to them I don't need to be at the window," he says.)

The jockey passes through the winner's circle with a smile on his face. His white silks, emblazoned with a green shamrock, are splattered with mud, as is his face. His work for the day is done.

 

Tommy Bartram was born in Ocala, Florida, where his father broke horses and his mother worked as a groom. Living on the backside, the family was constantly on the move, from Ohio to Illinois, Louisiana to California. "I went to three different schools a year, just traveling," Bartram remembers.

Bartram's mother recalls her husband coming home one day when Tommy was about six years old, and directing them to pack up immediately for a move from Ocala to Arlington Park in Chicago. "That's the way it was," says Lynn Bartram. "And when they said, 'We're moving,' you didn't pack until the truck came to the door, because you didn't know what would happen. It can be a hard life."

The difficulties were compounded by drink. Tommy's father, Ray, was an alcoholic. "He wasn't really a mean person or anything," Lynn says. "But [the kids] really don't have any memories of baseball games or things like that--just the hard times."

Adds Tommy: "I just remember Dad always having a beer in his hand, and that the family wasn't very happy."

Ray cleaned up in 1978 and temporarily got out of the racing business, but Tommy already had the bug. At age 13 he dropped out of school and began galloping horses for money. At 14 he started riding at Texas "bush tracks"--unregulated races where age requirements were nonexistent and cheating was rampant. He recalls riding ten quarter-horse races at a bush track in Joshua, Texas, one night, and winning nine of them--a feat that earned him more than $300.

By the time he was 16, he was riding at the official tracks, but his weight was a constant problem. At roughly five-foot-six, Bartram is taller than many jockeys; he practically had to starve himself to stay at 114 pounds. He was forced to "flip"--make himself throw up after eating--and spent a lot of time driving around in his car, bundled up and with the heat on, to sweat off pounds.

Lynn Bartram, who now runs an assisted-living facility in Texas with her husband, remembers her own father going through similar ordeals to make weight, and she's convinced it took years off his life. She was relieved when at 18 Tommy decided to become a trainer.

The very first horse Tommy entered in a race came in a winner. But he remembers the contest for a different reason. As his horse came charging through the pack to take the lead, one of the other thoroughbreds tripped and tossed its jockey. "As excited as I was to run my horse, I just totally got my mind off of that--of me winning, of where my horse was--and I just focused on that rider and I started praying for that rider," he says. When Bartram opened his eyes, his horse was cruising to victory. "I didn't ever want winning races to become number one in my life," the chaplain says today. "Even though that's your main goal as a trainer, I didn't want to neglect doing God's work."

 

Bartram's salary (which he declines to divulge) is paid by Canterbury, the Minnesota Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and a local charitable foundation. Across the nation, according to the chaplaincy, 37 racetrack chaplains minister to 65 tracks. Though most of the backside preachers are ordained ministers, Bartram is not; he relies on religious fervor and horse sense. "We believe that this is a community that Jesus would walk in if he was here on the face of the Earth," says Bartram's mentor, Les Riggs, who serves as chaplain at two Louisiana tracks. "He says, 'Go and preach to the ends of the world,' and that's what we're doing."

Though Bartram had never been to Canterbury Park before this year, he frequently encounters folks from his racing days. On a Tuesday night after church, he drives to a nearby hospital to visit Steve Ewalt, a longtime horseman. (Given the hazards of the backside, the cause of Ewalt's injury is somewhat ironic: He took a spill off a bicycle and broke his hip.)

Bartram and Ewalt competed at bush tracks in Texas when they were teenagers, and the men have known one another for nearly two decades. "It brings a whole new meaning to pain," Ewalt says of the injury. He pushes aside the bedsheet to reveal a left leg mangled by years of abuse and 19 separate surgeries. His hands, disproportionately large, are just as beaten up: knotted, twisted, and scarred.

Bartram picks up a religious pamphlet from the bedside table. "You have a chance to look at this yet?" he asks, tapping the booklet. Ewalt replies that he has been woozy from painkillers. Undeterred, Bartram stresses the benevolence of the Lord.

The chaplain has been Ewalt's sole visitor, and Ewalt clearly appreciates the company. Before Bartram departs, the two lock hands and pray together. Ewalt asks Bartram to call his parents in Iowa to let them know what happened. "Just tell 'em I'm fine," he says. "Stick another piece of hardware in me and I'm gone."

 

The chaplain's flock is growing. On this Tuesday evening in mid-June, barely a month after Bartram's arrival at Canterbury, about 40 people have shown up for services. The tiny chapel has been abandoned in favor of the rec room. Amid the pool tables, vending machines, TV sets, and jukebox, the chaplain is joined by a four-person "worship team" from nearby River of Life Community Church, where he occasionally attends Sunday services. Bartram's boom box has been supplanted by two guitars and a drum set.

"That was a great worship, awesome worship," he exclaims into a microphone as the worship team finishes a song. "Let's give God a hand!" Enthusiastic applause.

After a reading from the Bible, Bartram talks about how he struggled with depression and his faith after leaving the track several years ago. "I remember I was laying in my room and I was, honestly, I was in tears," he relates. He hadn't eaten for three days. "I was scared. And I finally just got to the point where I said, 'God, I cannot do anything. There's nothing I can do without you.'"

The chaplain digresses to relate a parable about faith. "This boy, he wanted to know God's will," he begins. "He went to an old man on a hill, and he said to him, 'Old wise man, I need wisdom, and I need to know God's plan for my life.' And so the old man says, 'Well, follow me.' He took the boy down to the ocean. When they got to the ocean, he waded out over the boy's head and he held him in the water. Now, the little boy was kicking, punching, gasping for air, all that he could do. He was fighting for air, for life, with all that was in him. And before he drowned, the old man pulled him out. And the boy was choking and gasping and he says, 'What were you doing? Were you trying to kill me?' And the old man says, 'No, but when you want to know God's will and seek his wisdom--when you want that as bad as you wanted air, as you wanted to breathe--that's when you'll get it.'

"That really touched my heart," Bartram concludes, circling back to his struggle with faith. "When I got to that point, then I had this peace hit me. In my stomach I just felt warm. I was like: Oh, wow, God, thank you for that. I just felt this peace, and I felt direction."

 

Outside, a barbecue is under way, a memorial benefit for the daughter of a trainer who died suddenly two weeks earlier. A whole pig has been roasted, but by the time church lets out, bones are all that's left.

The Even Money Band, with jockey Dave Shepherd on guitar, commences a set of classic rock anthems. ZZ Top's "La Grange" transforms the concrete patio into a dance floor. Bartram resists that particular temptation, but he lingers as his fellow racetrackers congregate on the lawn, sipping from cans of Budweiser or diet Coke. The evening air is gusty and wet. A steady trickle of rain falls on the backside.


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