Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Sharyn Wasiluk, President of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, Tampa Division
Growing up in Jamestown, N.Y., Sharyn Wasiluk was unaware a Thoroughbred racetrack existed about three hours to the north in Canandaigua. A private secretary who competed in rodeos on the weekends – barrel racing, goat tying and steer undecorating – Sharyn was hooked on her first visit, and delighted to learn she could make a living by working on the track. She took a six-month leave of absence from her job to come to Tampa Bay Downs, where she earned $40 a week walking horses and cleaning tack. She never returned to her old job. Sharyn wears a variety of hats: She is an assistant to her husband, trainer Peter Wasiluk, Jr., rides a lead pony during the racing program and is a director on the board of the Tampa Bay Downs Chapter of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. The cause closest to her heart, though, is her role as president of the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America. The Wasiluks have two children: Philip, 28, who works on the gate crew at Delaware Park, and Jaclyn, 26, a fifth-grade teacher. Jaclyn, who helps Tampa Bay Downs Group Sales Director Nicole McGill on weekends, will be married next month to Tim Reyes.
Our annual ‘Hearts Reaching Out’ Golf Tournament, Auction and Dinner, which is March 5, is always a good time to reflect on the progress of our chaplaincy at Tampa Bay Downs. But the work we do begins when grooms and stable hands and exercise riders begin arriving in November.
One of my goals with the chaplaincy is to make a better environment for everybody on the backside. I want them to enjoy coming to Tampa Bay Downs – to make them feel we are their home away from home. They can come into this building any time, whether it’s to get on a computer or play the guitar or just have a cup of coffee.
A lot of the workers don’t have cars or the ability to get out like I can. So the idea is, let’s make it more of a fun place and do things that encourage people to meet other people. On the racetrack, you usually don’t just walk over to somebody else’s barn, because those areas are kind of private. So my idea was to develop activities that make the backside more community-oriented.
The backstretch is like its own town, and the owners and trainers are the people who take care of the people who take care of the horses. When you think about it, the backside workers are the unsung heroes of our sport. They groom and walk the horses, feed and bathe them and muck their stalls, yet they rarely get any credit.
I believe we have made big strides in providing workers with an outlet when they are finished with their daily responsibilities. There are four brand-new computers in the office, and two have webcams, so people can keep in touch with their families wherever they live.
We have a well-organized soccer league and have hired outside officials to make sure the games run smoothly. Our co-ed softball games are very popular, and we’ve gotten some trainers and jockeys to participate. We also organized a fishing trip so people could get a day off, and most of the trainers have been receptive to letting that happen.
I feel that it’s important to organize fun activities, but we also want to help people with their spiritual well-being. Our chaplain, Rafael Santana, is deeply involved in the lives of many of the backside workers here. He spends a lot of time at the barns ministering to them.
Many are Hispanic, and he is somebody they can communicate with and confide in. His main goal, as is stated in our literature, is ‘to bring the word of God and his teachings to the people at the race track to bring them to God and to make the chaplaincy the brightest light in the barn area.’
I’ve really tried to go beyond just giving them people to talk to and activities for the dark days. A few years ago, the chaplaincy actually operated out of a small office behind the track kitchen. Now we’re in this comfortable double-wide building, where we offer English classes and computer classes that allow workers to keep in touch with their families. Just about everything you see in here, the computers and the desks and the couches and the drum set and the keyboard, have been donated.
We have a church service every Monday night, attended by anywhere from 40-70 people, and weekly Bible studies. If someone has a problem with drinking, we offer counseling. I believe if anyone on the backside has a problem, whether it be emotional, spiritual or physical, we are equipped to deal with it. Catholic Charities USA has provided us with a medical van, and we offer free examinations and referrals once a week by a licensed physician. We also provide health screenings once a year to anyone with a track license to check blood pressure, sugar, cholesterol and receive flu shots.
We’ve always been a racetrack family. Peter and I met at Penn National and have been together since. I’m from Jamestown, N.Y. and he’s from south Jersey, and we raced at a bunch of Northern tracks – Monmouth, Delaware, Finger Lakes, Penn National, Rockingham when it was open. We came here for a vacation in the fall of 2000, and shortly after we sold our house in Canandaigua and moved here.
I don’t have a trainer’s license any more; I have an owner’s license and a pony license. We have 23 horses, of which we own about seven or eight and have part ownership of a few others. One of our best horses when we raced up north was Tunbridge Wells. He broke his maiden at Aqueduct in 1993 and won the Old Ironsides Handicap at Suffolk in 1996. He raced until he was 9, won 18 times and earned more than $300,000.
That’s why I chuckle when people think Dinner in Odem, who is our mainstay, isn’t going to run any more now that he’s 8. Really, I think he has just hit a slump. He performed respectably in stakes company at Calder last fall and he still seems to enjoy training. He has won almost $400,000 and two stakes, including the Chris Thomas Turf Classic here a few years ago.
That is one thing Peter and I kind of pride ourselves on: having horses that last a long time. We don’t train on Bute (Butazolidin), which is an anti-inflammatory used to control pain and inflammation. Dinner in Odem has never had a shot of Bute since we’ve had him.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t give Bute to a horse to help it if it was hurt, and I have run horses on Bute on occasion, but I want to know where we are at with our horses. If a horse is sore today, I want to know if it is better tomorrow, and that’s difficult to tell if you are giving it something to mask the pain.
If I’m going to run him, I want to know how he is doing. I don’t want a horse or a jockey to get hurt if I can possibly help it because a horse I’m running on Bute breaks down. I realize there’s a fine line and it is a constant subject of discussion in the industry, because some people think you’re not trying to win hard enough if you aren’t running on Bute.
Don’t get me wrong; we’re not against using Lasix (a diuretic used to control bleeding). I think that is foolishness. Horses bleed from the exertion of a race, and which is worse: giving a horse Lasix or having it bleed to death?
Peter and I do a lot of the work at the barn ourselves. It is just the old way, the way we are used to doing it. We both rub horses, and he tacks everything in the morning. He puts the saddle on every horse and takes the bandages off and touches their legs so he knows what he’s got. I go to the track with as many as possible, so I can see how they go and how they are traveling and who gets along with which horses.
To me, it makes a huge difference if you have a happy horse. If you’ve got a rider jerking and snatching and not getting along, or that horse is getting too tough for that person and they’re not able to get it to do what they want, you’ve got to be able to get somebody else.
My pony is named Stillwell, after the character in the Movie ‘A League of Their Own.’ He is a 10-year-old Appaloosa gelding, but when we got him he was so fat I told people he was a Thelwell pony, like the drawings by Norman Thelwell, the English artist. But instead of Thelwell, my husband suggested Stillwell, and the name stuck.
I enjoy ponying horses to the gate before races. Certainly the weather here is a lot better than it was in New York, where it was snowing and blowing and 30 degrees. Some horses are worse than others, and you say ‘Hooboy, I’m glad that’s over,’ but I still love doing it.
I’ll be 65 next month, and if it gets to where I can’t do the job any more, I will make the decision to get off the pony. But I enjoy working with the horses and seeing them progress too much to stop now. It’s almost like bringing up your children – it really is. I’m more comfortable on a horse than I am doing anything else.