When Humberto Chavez was studying in the seminary he imagined that one day he would be working in a church with pews, a choir and a steady congregation.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, Chavez’s congregation is the thousands of workers who labor in the backstretch of three New York racetracks, including Belmont, which hosts the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
His “church” is the horse stables that he wanders through each day, talking to, counseling and helping the grooms, hot-walkers, trainers and jockeys. For Mass, held on Monday nights, the workers’ recreation hall next to the cafeteria serves as the sanctuary.
He has been at it 15 years, making his rounds at the Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga racetracks.
“God has his own way of making himself laugh, because he grabs some Mexican kid to be part of a racing industry where . . . there are no pews, there are stalls, filled with people,” said Chavez, who came to the United States with his single mother when he was 11. “There’s no choir, but there is a whole array of music as you walk through the backstretch,” mostly songs from the workers’ Latin American homelands.
Chavez, 41, a nondenominational Christian, is part spiritual guide and part social worker. While he consoles workers who miss their families in their native countries, he also takes them to doctor’s appointments, assists with legal documents and hands out everything from food to blankets to supplement their incomes.
“He does everything he can for us back here,” said Omar Velez, 39, a stable foreman of Puerto Rican descent who grew up in Queens. “He keeps us on the right path.”
Chavez has become something of a legend in the backstretch.
He “is by far the most respected and influential person on the backstretch,” said Nick Caras, the program director for the Racetrack Chaplaincy of New York who helped hire Chavez in 2003.
“He relates so well,” Caras said. “And he has absolutely no ego.”
His flock consists of about 3,000 backstretch workers at Belmont, including the 1,500 who live there. There are up to 1,400 at Saratoga during race season, and about 300 at Aqueduct.
Besides his regular work, he has performed weddings in the grandstands for both workers and members of the public and handed out turkeys for Thanksgiving. He has taken workers and their children to Six Flags Great Adventure and has even said prayers for competing horses.
Chavez came to the job indirectly. The 1995 Mineola High School graduate was making $100,000 a year running his own construction company, and working part-time as a co-pastor at his brother-in-law’s church — across the street from Belmont.
He began doing outreach with the track workers, and when the full-time chaplain left in 2003, he asked for the job.
“It was that fork in the road in your life where you say, ‘Do you really want to do this, or do you want to pursue something that your heart and your passion is there for?’ ” he said.
His nonprofit Racetrack Chaplaincy of New York office operates out of a trailer at Belmont and includes a food pantry and several workers. The $650,000 that the chaplaincy receives annually comes from groups such as the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the New York Racing Association as well as from horse owners. The owners include Lisa and Kenny Troutt, who have this year’s Triple Crown hopeful Justify.
Chavez’s flock largely hails from countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Guatemala, where horses are part of the culture.
Loneliness, and missing their families, is a big problem. So is navigating the language and the social services system here. Chavez tries to fill the gaps.
“Our philosophy is it goes beyond bringing the word” of Jesus Christ, he said. “We are there for them in every aspect of the work.”
“Everybody needs some love,” he added, “and God is love.”
Many of the workers say Chavez is a godsend, just what they need to add some inspiration in an industry that can be grueling.
Saul Castellanos, 46, a native of Mexico who is an assistant trainer, said Chavez’s dynamic personality and sympathetic ear was “something we’ve been waiting for, somebody who can help us, somebody who is everybody’s friend.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of workers Chavez ministers to. He ministers to 3,000 backstretch workers.