Meet Keeneland's race track chaplain Dean Carpenter

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - People in ministry can be found in police and fire departments, the military and across many other walks of life. So it should not be a surprise that many horse racing tracks have chaplains.

With the fall meet at Keeneland underway, we thought this was a good time to meet Keeneland chaplain Dean Carpenter and see why his mission keeps him moving.

"Good morning! Hey, how are you doing?"

It's a greeting we heard many times from a man casually dressed with an easy manner. In fact, Carpenter is easy to miss among the magnificent thoroughbreds on the backstretch of Keeneland, and he likes that. He stays in the background along Keeneland's rows of stalls.

"It's a very tight-knit community in the backstretch of the race track," Carpenter said.

This beehive of activity showcases a dedicated group of workers washing, riding and caring for the stars of the track.

"People walking horses, grooms, trainers, the assistant trainers, blacksmiths, I tell you it's a tremendous occupation of hard-working peoplem," Carpenter said.

Those people travel from track to track during the racing season. It can be a rough life and dangerous at times, so to have a calm, reassuring voice, not a boss, but a person who is there for them, is where the race chaplain comes in.

"The presence of the chaplain is a ministry in itself...because everybody knows there's somebody here for 'em at all times," Carpenter said, "They're definitely not a forgotten people."

Carpenter is a full-time chaplain at Keeneland and the Thoroughbred Training Center, plus he's pastor at a Methodist church in Washington County. He's spent three years building a trust with the track workers.

"People see me, and if they went thru a situation, then they can say, 'Hey, here's the chaplain. He's helped me. He can help you.'"

On the track speaker system, he greets the day, "Good morning in the barn area. This is Chaplain Dean, want to wish you a good morning on this beautiful October day."

He begins each morning with a devotional and scripture reading on the track speaker system.

"I pray that everyone has a safe day today. I pray that you'll realize the wonderful truth from the word of our Lord today and always."

Assisting Chaplain Dean is Diana Varon who also works for Keeneland and bridges any language barriers. Together they hold regular, track interdenominational church services, bible study, visit sick and injured workers, refer workers to local doctors, help workers who need clothing, transportation, and even perform marriages.

Keeneland is not alone. Dozens and dozens of race tracks around this country employ chaplains. In fact, the group that helps support them, the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, is based in Lexington. Dan Waits is the executive director.

"A chaplain presence on the race track improves the race track environment for everybody. And they've seen that. The entire industry has seen that," Waits says, "A good chaplain is a selfless servant, and I've got a lot of selfless servants across the country...all the way from Emerald Downs in Washington State, all the way down to Tampa Bay."

In a room the public rarely sees, Carpenter says a prayer.

"Romans 15 that I just read. Reminds us that God is the God of patience. So if at any time you're in a situation and say now, I don't know if I have enough patience to deal with this situation, just remember to stop and take a breath."

He's in the jockey locker room of Keeneland where they prepare for the day's races. Silks hang from lockers, and the jockey's valets move about making sure all is in order. Perhaps no one at the track leans on the prayers of the chaplain more than the jockeys.

"They're getting ready to climb aboard a very powerful animal," Carpenter says.

"He's here to help us with whatever we need. A lot of us can't go to Mass on Sunday morning because of racing start. It's our prayer time. We pray for one another, send out the prayers that we need, or we want to, and he just puts it all in an envelope and sends it off. It's great. It's great to have him here," veteran jockey James Graham said.

Chaplain Dean likes to say he is working when no one is looking. Maybe so, but something strong suggests, if he and his message were missing from the track. they'd notice.

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