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New racetrack chaplain endured physical strife as jockey before taking on new role

April 07, 2013|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Joel Hiraldo couldn’t be better qualified for the job for which he was just hired — chaplain at the “backstretch,” where nearly 1,000 jockeys, gate crews, trainers, grooms and hot walkers keep the racehorses at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.

Hiraldo, 36, a native of Puerto Rico, started his racing career there as a jockey 18 years ago. He came to Charles Town in 2004. In October that year, his career hit a temporary snag when a racing accident left him with fractured ribs and a punctured lung.

He continued racing at Charles Town and at tracks in Maryland, New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania until July 2011, when his back was broken playing basketball in a local church tournament.

“A big guy on the other team fell on me,” he said.

His career went from being a jockey to jockey’s agent until last month, when he was named chaplain. 

Hiraldo’s path to being chaplain began in 2002, when he was ordained a Pentecostal minister in Puerto Rico. He has a master’s degree in theology.

He met his wife, Carmen, in college. They were ordained at the same time.

The couple’s three children, Betsy, 16, John Paul, 11, and Jahaciel, 9, attend Jefferson County, W.Va., schools.

The couple started Promesas de Dios (Promise of God), a Spanish-speaking church that meets Sundays and Tuesdays in a rented building in Ranson, W.Va. The church has about 80 active members, he said.

A typical day in the backstretch finds Hiraldo in the barns talking to workers, listening to their problems, and setting up family and drug and alcohol counseling sessions if they’re requested. He also works with area churches and social-service agencies.

The backstretch at Charles Town has 21 barns each with 50 stalls to house the nearly 1,000 horses stabled at any one time.

Also populating Hiraldo’s backstretch congregation are veterinarians and blacksmiths, plus people who work on the area’s horse breeding farms.

Hiraldo said he goes to the jockey room before every race, then heads to the starting gate to meet the workers there.

“They are both very dangerous jobs,” he said of the jockeys and the workers. “We pray together for their safety.”

He holds Sunday services in space provided by the casino.

The chaplaincy has an annual budget of about $100,000. It pays Hiraldo’s salary plus that of two part-time secretaries.

The Charles Town track is a member of the national Race Track Chaplaincy of America.

Looking back after less than a month on the job, Hiraldo feels it’s where he belongs.

“God called me for this,” he said.

“We felt he was the perfect choice,” said George Yetsook, a trainer and member of the chaplaincy council’s search committee.

The members began their search to replace the former chaplain, Pete Crisswell, by meeting with 12 pastors from area churches for guidance.

At first they settled on a former track chaplain whom they knew to be very qualified, Yetsook said. He was certified to counsel families, addicted gamblers and in anger management, “but he decided to stay in Minnesota.”

Hiraldo wanted to be chaplain, but he never applied for the job, Yetsook said. The committee asked him to submit a résumé.

Hiraldo met all of the requirements and knew the backstretch from years of working there, Yetsook said.

Adding that to his experience founding and serving the Spanish church with his wife made him a “phenomenal” choice, Yetsook said.

“He was right here in our backyard,” he said. “This whole thing is positive. We all feel really good about it. This chaplaincy will grow.”

The chaplaincy’s board of directors will host a reception for Hiraldo on April 20 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Charles Town Race Track Training Center at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Race Track Street.

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