Sunday, December 29, 2013

Eli Hernandez, Track Chaplain

First-year Tampa Bay Downs Chaplain Eli Hernandez grew up in a dangerous, gang-riddled area of Los Angeles, but his parents’ emphasis on leading a Christian life – his father was a church elder and his mother was a church secretary – kept him from yielding to the streets. At 9, he surrendered his life to serving Jesus Christ, and his passion for helping others continued to grow. Walking to school as a teenager, he saw dozens of homeless people sleeping under a nearby bridge. Concerned for their plight, he began dropping off sandwiches he prepared at home each morning. “There were a lot of distractions where I grew up, and as a teenager I kind of went sour,” he recalls. “But I always came back to my roots, and that was God.” Married for 25 years to Martha, Hernandez was ordained in 2000 by the Fruit of the Spirit Church. He was a minister at the New Living Way Church in Downey, Calif., and a senior claims adjuster for an insurance agency when he learned of the opportunity to join the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America. Pastor Eli talks about his family, the decision to move cross-country and the community he serves at Tampa Bay Downs in this installment of the track’s “Racing In The Sunshine” blog.

 THE TOUGHEST OBSTACLE MANY OF THE BACKSTRETCH WORKERS FACE is being away from their families. They get up early in the morning, they work seven days a week and the living area is far from glamorous, but they do their jobs well and are willing to sacrifice to make life a little better for their loved ones. My hat goes off to them. They are the unsung heroes of the game, and they deserve all the recognition the media and public relations people can give them.

GROWING UP, MY BROTHER MANUEL TOOK ME TO SANTA ANITA and Hollywood Park, but all I saw was the glamorous part of the sport – the horses running, the jockeys riding and everyone jumping up and down when their horse won. I never thought about the backside of it. In fact, I never even knew there was a backside. Now that I am experiencing it firsthand, it’s amazing to me what goes on with the grooms and the hot walkers and the other employees. They are a big part of what makes the front so good.

MOVING CROSS-COUNTRY TO FLORIDA WAS A TREMENDOUS CHANGE for Martha and myself. Our daughter Jessica, her two children and our son Matthew, who is 18 and a high school senior, are still in Los Angeles, so the holidays were the toughest time. But Martha and myself and our kids believe God sent us here for a purpose. God has provided us the peace and comfort, and everyone here has accepted us with open arms, which has made it much easier for us. We feel we are developing a family here at the racetrack.

WE ALL AGREED IT WAS THE RIGHT MOVE FOR MATTHEW TO STAY at his school, but that was obviously one of the biggest decisions we have ever had to make as a family. We had never been apart from him. He’s a basketball player, and I went to all of his practices and his games and his functions. He is living now with his sister and her family. Some people said we were taking a step of faith, but it was definitely a leap of faith. But we knew in our hearts it was the right thing and we are getting through it.

MARTHA’S PASSION IS GREATER THAN MINE. She cares about people and loves people, and together we have that same goal to serve them, to help them and to reach out to those in need. If that means encouragement or if it means just sitting down and listening, we are blessed to do it. Martha is a great listener. If people ask us for advice we’ll give it, but sometimes they just want a listening ear.

THE GAMBLING ASPECT OF HORSE RACING DOESN’T BOTHER ME AT ALL. I see it as another opportunity for me to counsel someone if they are in need. Individuals are individuals, and we are all looking for a way to get ahead in life. I refuse to judge anybody or put anybody down. We are not here for that. We are here to lift up and encourage. I would just hope that if they make a big win, they give some to the chaplaincy. When my brother Manuel took me, I always bet on the gray horse. I don’t do any more betting, but I always cheer for the grays because they are so beautiful.

HERE AT THE TRACK, MY MISSION IS TO SERVE in any way I can. That might mean providing clothing or tracking down telephone numbers or just being an encouragement. The big thing is just making myself available to whatever someone’s needs are. We have non-denominational church services every Monday at 6 p.m., English classes on Mondays and Tuesdays at 2 p.m., and Bible study on Thursday at 2 p.m. I am also planning to start an Alcoholic’s Anonymous class through the Chaplain’s office if there are people willing to be committed to it.

SUBSTANCE ABUSE IS AN ISSUE WE DEAL WITH in all segments of society, not just on the racetrack. But the nature of the job, in which many employees have a lot of free time after training hours, can make things worse. I am certified and licensed as a drug and alcohol counselor, but I don’t have all the answers. But I’m looking forward to helping those people who want help and are willing to take that step to get it.

I SEE A BIG OPPORTUNITY HERE. I’ve spoken to grooms and hot walkers, jockeys, trainers and owners, and there is so much opportunity here for me to serve people. There are so many here on the track who have needs and are hurting or seeking guidance, and this environment brings everybody together regardless of what state or country or background they are from. Striving to work together in unity and harmony – what an opportunity that is for all of us. We can wake up every morning, help and encourage each other and look up at the end of the day and say “Thank you, God, for another day you have given us to work together as a team.”

IN THE SHORT TIME MARTHA AND I HAVE BEEN HERE, I believe we have proven to people they can trust us. Already, we’ve had so many open up their hearts, and we’ve been able to pray with them and point them in the right direction when they need help. We want people to know we are here for them and we care about them. My door is always open and my phone is always on. We feel comfortable here and are confident we’re in the right place.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Jamie Ness, Trainer

Thanks to the wonder of simulcasting, Jamie Ness has become one of the best-known Thoroughbred trainers in North America. But there is no magic formula responsible for his success. The Odessa, Fla., resident is at Barn 14 on the Tampa Bay Downs backstretch every morning at 5 a.m. to check his string of 40 horses, organize his staff, oversee workouts and make final preparations for that day’s races. He also stays abreast via telephone of the 30 horses he trains at Laurel Park in Maryland. Since starting his career at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, the South Dakota State graduate has streaked across the racing firmament like a shooting star, saddling more than 2,000 winners and leading the continent in 2012 with 395 victories. He has won the training title at Tampa Bay Downs seven consecutive years. Rich Papiese, whose Midwest Thoroughbreds operation is Ness’ sole client, said “He sees things other people don’t see. From the time we drop a claim (for a horse), he knows where we are going with that horse right away. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who works as hard as he does.” The 39-year-old Ness is married to a former jockey and trainer, Mandy (McKeever). They have a 1-year-old daughter, Hannah.

I DON’T FIND MYSELF STAYING AT THE BARN WASTING TIME like I did before Hannah was born. I do everything we need to do, but I don’t spend time messing around. I’m at home more now, that’s for sure. Being a dad is the best feeling in the world. It helps a lot because Hannah likes to come out here and play with the horses, so it’s fun to have her involved in my job. I have to admit, Mom does all the hard work and I get all the glory. It just shows me there are more things in life than my job. I try not to bring work home, anyway, but now I can lose 10 races in a row, come home and see Hannah smiling, and it makes a big difference.

IT’S REALLY FUN GOING TO WORK WITH YOUR WIFE EVERY DAY. I mean it. Mandy grew up in the business and knows all the ins and outs, the long hours and the travel, and she accepts all that. Sometimes all we do is talk about the horses, but that’s because we’re around them so much and we love it. She watches over everything here when I’m in Maryland, so I know the operation is running smoothly. She used to pony a lot in the mornings, but we’re expecting again in June so she doesn’t do that now. This is our business, and we’re partners. My job and my success are part of her life, too.

YOU BET I HAVE CONCERNS ABOUT THE FUTURE of racing. I came into the sport when racing was on a downslide. I’m worried about attendance dropping at a lot of tracks. Tampa Bay Downs does a good job drawing fans, but I don’t see a lot of young people here. I think night racing would be a big draw, but I know Florida doesn’t allow it. I’m concerned that slot machines that boost purses are just a quick fix, and that it is going to backfire on us in a few years. I don’t profess to have a whole lot of solutions, and I know there are a lot of people with marketing degrees who are a lot smarter than I am working to reverse the trend. The advantage horse racing had for years was that it was the only gambling game in town. So we never really took care of our customers and when other forms of gambling came along, a lot of people migrated there. I am hoping it is cyclical and the glory days of racing come back around, but we have to switch around how we do things. We need to treat it more like entertainment.

MY FIRST FEW YEARS AS A TRAINER, I WAS RUNNING THE SIMULCAST FACILITY AT CANTERBURY in Minnesota, and training horses was basically a hobby. I wouldn’t say I struggled, but I didn’t win a lot of races; according to Equibase statistics, I was 35-for-332 my first three years. But as I started gaining experience and getting more business, I decided it was time to fish or cut bait and become a full-time trainer. I had helped my dad, John Ness, a little growing up when he raced some horses at smaller Midwestern tracks, but when I started at Canterbury I was kind of on my own. I didn’t follow anyone’s lead. I just kept working hard and claimed a couple of good horses, and it blossomed from there. One thing about training horses: You won’t get anywhere if you aren’t willing to put in the time.

I DON’T THINK TRAINING RACEHORSES IS ROCKET SCIENCE. First of all, you aren’t going to do anything without decent horses, just like a football coach needs good players to win. Then you take good care of them, assess their ability, train them right and put them in races where they belong. There is no use running a horse where it can’t win. I like all my horses, but when one gets claimed I know we did everything we could with the horse and good luck to the next owner. If you’re a sentimentalist, you’re probably not in the business anymore. You have to treat it like a business, but you better take care of your horses the best way you know how because they are your livelihood and you can’t help getting attached to them.

I FEEL LIKE WE GET ALONG WITH EVERYBODY on the backstretch. I don’t know that I would describe the relationships with other horsemen as close, but it’s still a family. If something happens to somebody, everybody helps out. But we’re also competitors, and we’re all trying to do the same thing – win races and make a living. So after a race you congratulate the winner, but beforehand we’re trying to beat you.

IT IS SO IMPORTANT TO HAVE A GOOD RAPPORT WITH YOUR OWNER. Rich Papiese and I have been together since 2008, and he has been very instrumental in my success. After my daughter was born, he understood I didn’t need to win 400 races and be leading trainer at six or seven tracks every year, so he agreed to let me cut back to two strings. He’s a good guy who really likes his horses, and he wants me to do everything the right way. I think I will always have a relationship with Midwest. Whether I train only for them or have some other horses is to be decided in the future, but I like the way things are working.

I HAVEN’T HAD THAT GRADED-STAKES TYPE OF HORSE YET, but I’m hoping to find one somewhere. Rich has been buying more young horses at the sales, and we have a bunch of yearlings at his training facility in Anthony, Fla., so we hope to have more 2 and 3-year-olds competing in the future. With the horses I work with, it is pretty hard to get a graded winner, because I run a claiming operation and we don’t get many young horses. I sure don’t want to be the guy who buys a horse for $300,000 and winds up running him for a $16,000 claiming tag. Guam Typhoon (a 7-year-old multiple-stakes winner) got close for us last year. His numbers were borderline for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, but he was just a notch below and I knew better than to just take a shot. Was it tempting? Absolutely. But he had had a long campaign and was a little tired, and I know I did the best thing for the horse by staying away. Everybody wants to run in the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders’ Cup and so do I, but you have to have the right horse to do it.

IT’S FUNNY HOW SOME HORSES’ NAMES ARE SO MEANINGFUL. Lookinforthesecret was a horse I claimed here for $12,500 in 2007, and he ended up winning stakes after stakes; eight all told, including four at Tampa Bay Downs and a $250,000 stakes at Calder. Nobody knew my name until that horse started doing well, but when he kept winning, a couple of people got interested and claimed some horses for me to train, and things started to take off. I’ll always be grateful to Lookinforthesecret because he helped me make a name for myself, and he is still active as a sire. His win pictures are up on my walls; I don’t have any other ones there.

IF I HAD TO STOP TRAINING TODAY, I’d probably move back to the Dakotas and do something with horses or livestock. I don’t want to do anything else, nor do I really have the skills for anything else. You see a lot of old trainers who train forever, and when they retire, they die. They’re used to the routine and the adrenaline rush and the competitiveness, and when that’s gone, they don’t always get along. If I didn’t work as a trainer, I’d probably be out here every day watching races and betting. I love the whole sport, and I’m living the dream. I hope I’m training until I’m 90 years old, because that means there is still racing somewhere.