It was Memorial Day. Laura and I stopped in Fuzzy’s Taco Shop in Lawrence for our favorite shrimp tacos. We had just come from the KU baseball clubhouse where we enjoyed the announcement of the Jayhawks selection to play in the NCAA Baseball Championships’ opening weekend in Louisville, Kentucky.
Fuzzy’s owner, John Records, sat down and wondered what we were doing in his shop on a fine holiday afternoon. We discussed the selection show and mentioned we would be leaving for Louisville on Wednesday. That is when Records uttered the magic words, “Churchill Downs.”
Records, it turned out, had a horse racing background before shifting to the taco business. We talked about my time covering the races at Turf Paradise in Phoenix and how much we both loved the sight of a thoroughbred racing at speed. That was when Records helped further make our day by informing us, “You know I could grease some wheels for you at Churchill Downs.”
That is how Laura and I arrived early Saturday morning at the gate leading into the magical world of the backside at the home of the Kentucky Derby. Surprisingly, our escort was the track’s chaplain, Ken Boehm. As we made our way past the rows of horse barns walking towards the track, we thought how, just weeks earlier California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby on the track stretching out before us. Amazed by the site, I asked Boehm how he came to be a horse track chaplain.
Boehm explained he had been the pastor at a well-established congregation, but grew to feel he was only helping maintain souls and not helping to bring new souls to Christ. Through a friend he discovered his true calling for Christ on the backside of the most famous race track in the world, where his congregation was far from established.
When I mentioned my father was a Lutheran minister until his passing, we realized again that the degrees of separation are few. Boehm informed us he too was a Lutheran. He asked what seminary my father attended. Turns out both men attended the Missouri Synod’s Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. That led me ask if he knew a former vicar at our family church, and dear family friend, Sam Nafzger, who went on to teach and rise to the heights of the Synod in St. Louis. Boehm immediately ran through the Nafzger classes he attended while at Seminary.
As we walked down memory lane, Boehm ran through the rules we needed to follow around such expensive horse-flesh. Jockey after jockey stopped to say hello to their chaplain. Soon Boehm was off for his daily scripture readings and sermonette that boomed through the massive tracks speaker system between the two morning training sessions. We were left alone to enjoy the wonders. The speed and grace of a thoroughbred in full flight remains the most beautiful athletic performance in life.
Four hundred people work on the backside. Over 300 people live on site. Jockeys, outriders, groomers and more can live in two dorm buildings, or if married, in small apartments built above each of the long horse barns. It was easy to sense the competition that exists as horse after horse raced past us under the watchful eyes of trainers holding stop watches in their hands.
Just as wonderful was the evident bond between these special people. Jokes flew as rapidly as the valuable horses in a variety of languages. Otto Thorwarth cruised past us chatting away. If you have seen the great movie Secretariat, Thorwarth played the role of Ron Turcotte, the jockey that rode the greatest horse God ever created to the Triple Crown and national adoration in 1973. An owner stopped to inform us one of his highly regarded mares was taking to the track and was worthy of our attention.
Yes, I took photographs, but this was one privilege I chose to enjoy and cherish more without a camera in front of my eye. Before we could leave, Chaplain Boehm arranged for our free entry into the track’s museum and for a tour of the grounds on the front side before the day’s racing.
We joyfully took it all in as we offered up our thanks to Chaplain Boehm and John Records and the wonderful people on the backside for a very special morning.