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Minnesota Horse Racing Quality of Life Foundation impacts backside personnel

January 11, 2006     E-mail this page to a friend!

By Phyllis Tryon

True story. Once there was a successful businessman, a building contractor, who bought himself a very expensive and beautiful racehorse. Everyone had eyes for the horse and the man was well pleased with his purchase.

His wife, however, came away incredibly saddened because no one seemed to notice the horse’s handler, who appeared unkempt, toothless, and hungover; virtually the “dregs of society.”

When his wife expressed her concerns, building contractor Jim Ryan vowed to himself, his wife and the racing community that he would make a commitment to the community of people who live on the backside of race tracks. In particular, he would be committed to helping them improve their lives in the area of alcohol and drug abuse.

And so was born the Ryan Foundation, a foundation formed to start drug and alcohol support programs at tracks throughout the United States. Ryan set up a one million dollar fund and made it available for tracks to match grant packages of $30,000 to begin alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs.

Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota was one of the first racetracks in the nation to set up a program. Thus was born the Minnesota Horse Racing Quality of Life Foundation, initiated in 1989 with financial assistance from the Ryan Foundation. The goal of the founders of the Minnesota foundation was to offer licensed backside personnel at Minnesota racetracks the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves while remaining active in their chosen profession.

The Minnesota Horse Racing Quality of Life Foundation incorporated originally under the name of the Canterbury/Brooks Fields Quality of Life Foundation (Brooks Fields was one of the original owners of Canterbury Park) and received non-profit status with the purpose of providing charitable, educational, religious, scientific and literary pursuits as allowed under the non-profit status. Subsequently the name was changed but the program goals remain the same.

Doug Fiola, President and Chairman of the Board of MHR Quality of Life Foundation, notes that alcohol and drug abuse are traditionally the number one problem on the backside of racetracks. Himself an Employee Assistance Counselor with Cargill until he retired (Cargill is an international food and agricultural provider with 124,000 employees in 59 countries), as well as a horse owner with horses at Canterbury Park, Fiola is excited about the Quality of Life program at his track.

“Coming from a counseling background,” he explained, “alcohol and drug abuse, for a long period of time, was looked upon as a moral malady. We have to realize it’s a physical disease,” he said.

The Foundation operates under the guidance of a president, secretary/treasurer, and five directors.

The Foundation works closely with the chaplain for the Race Track Chaplaincy of America (RTCA) program at Canterbury Park to offer assistance to backside personnel. Since the mission of RTCA is “to meet, with excellence, the spiritual, emotional, physical, and social/educational needs of horse racing’s work force,” the MHR Quality of Life Foundation goals meld well with the work of the chaplain.
Fiola explained that through Jim Ryan, scholarship money was set up at the University of Kentucky to encourage RTCA to provide education and training in alcohol and drug abuse to its chaplains.

The local RTCA chaplain provides interdenominational worship services, runs a recreational program, provides counseling, visits people in the hospital, and provides a general social service, Fiola explained.

In addition, every Saturday a bilingual alcoholism and drug counselor from a local treatment center comes out for three hours and works with chaplain, helping provide counseling, assessments and evaluation, and also visits with a couple of outpatient people who work on the backside.

Another goal of the MRH Quality of Life Foundation is to do more education, training and early intervention.

“We use Alcoholics Anonymous as part of the support group; we have an active group at the track,” Fiola said. “For a 53-day race meet, we’re really proud of our program.”

Three entities contribute to the salary of the track’s chaplain, Tommy Bartram: Canterbury Park, Minnesota Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Foundation (which also offers a substantial horsemen’s medical services program), and the MHR Quality of Life Foundation.

The Foundation encourages donations from owners, trainers and the community. Fiola has also written successful grant requests, two to the State Racing Commission and one to Canterbury Park Foundation. The Foundation is looking at helping organize prayer breakfasts, etc., as fundraisers also.

“We work at a lot of different levels,” Fiola said. “There are tentacles of involvement. Say there’s 500 people on the backside. It’s hard to put a figure on it, but we have softball programs, people who go to church, people in treatment, we do a lot of stuff with administration as far as education and training, and we spend time with the race stewards. And we have great support from the Samsons who own the track. They have been very, very supportive.

“If we have an employee go up before the stewards—let’s say he was drinking or something like that—we work a lot with the stewards to get people help instead of just kicking them out,” Fiola explained. He estimates that 50 or 60 percent of backside personnel are involved in some way with the program.
Chaplain Tommy Bartram is a fourth generation race tracker who feels called to minister to backside personnel.

“My great-grandfather all the way down to me were all jockeys. I used to ride races,” he said. He still works as an exercise rider and helps out on the starting gate. Bartram was riding match races at bush tracks in Texas and Louisiana when he was as young as twelve. By the time he was 16, he was race riding at Louisiana Downs, Blue Ribbon Downs and Remington Park in Oklahoma, and Trinity Meadows in Texas.
“I rode for awhile, then I trained for awhile. I loved training,” he said. “I was training horses for awhile and did good. Then in 1995, I got rid of my horses and some owners lost some money and we split up. I was galloping horses and working starting gates, and I wasn’t happy anymore. All I wanted to do was the racetrack, but the well was kind of drying up for me.

“I thought, ‘Maybe the Lord wants me in the ministry.’ At a young age, I had wanted to serve the Lord…but I was scared to make that commitment and didn’t know what to do about that. Then I quit the track for three years and started a moving company.”

Bartram built a successful business within three years in Texas but suddenly ended up near death when his lungs collapsed during an outpatient surgery on his hand.
“I was having lung problems for awhile and carrying an oxygen tank, and at that time I felt the Lord really wanted me in the ministry. So I sold my business and called Chaplain Les Riggs in Louisiana Downs (where he had been a jockey and trainer) and I became his assistant chaplain in late 1999. He had been waiting for me to make that commitment anyway.”

After several years serving as Chaplain Riggs’ assistant, a position opened for a chaplain at Canterbury Park. Bartram was chosen, he believes, due to his history as a racetracker.

“I speak their lingo,” he said about his ability to relate to backside personnel. “In fact I told them before I came that part of the deal would be that I would continue to gallop horses.”

“If it was a money issue or conflict, I would gallop for free because it helps the ministry,” he said. He has been at the Park since 2002.

Fiola noted that one of the difficulties with the chaplaincy position is that the meet is 53 days; then where does the chaplain go? Bartram picks up odd jobs in the off season in order to stay in the area. Now 33 years old and married 2 years ago, he lives within a 20-minute drive of the track. When he first came to the Park, he lived in a room in one of the dorms which house backside personnel.

“These guys back here who have problems come to me and I talk to them on a daily basis. When I know they are really hurting and they need some extra help, we line them up with the Five Stars program. We get them in there and they (Five Stars) work around the racetrackers’ schedule.”

Five Stars Recovery Center of Minneapolis focuses on substance abuse treatment services on an outpatient basis. The MHR Quality of Life Foundation offers support for those on the backside for the program.

The tentacles are out and the profits are seen in helping salvage human lives. The Minnesota Horse Racing Quality of Life Foundation, together with chaplain services and other programs offered at Canterbury Park, such as services through the HBPA, work together to enrich lives and make the human experience more dignified even on the backside of a race track.

Tax deductible donations to the Minnesota Horse Racing Quality of Life Foundation may be sent to: 10600 Aquila Avenue South, Bloomington, MN 55438-2225.