Six mornings a week, Alex DeLima walks from barn to barn at Tampa Bay Downs, a thermos of hot coffee in hand, eager to share a message of hope and love with the track’s backstretch population.
If DeLima sees someone is busy working with a horse, he’ll move ahead in his journey, always secure in the knowledge that God’s word is all-powerful and enduring.
“God is love, and He is trying to reach out to man in the Bible from the beginning in Genesis through the Book of Revelation,” said DeLima, a full-time pastor at The Well in nearby Tarpon Springs who became the racetrack’s Chaplain last month. DeLima said he wants to bring people “to a consciousness that there is a supreme God who created us and loves us and wants to have a relationship with us – in other words, He has a plan for our lives if we allow Him to help us.”
In his first few weeks on the job, the 52-year-old DeLima – a new member of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America – has found the job involves wearing numerous hats as he mixes with grooms and hotwalkers, exercise riders and jockeys, as well as trainers, racing officials and the occasional owner.
In addition to organizing the annual Christmas Party for backstretch workers last Thursday, DeLima provided words of sympathy to friends and family of late owner-trainer Bobby Raymond in the winner’s circle after Saturday’s second race; served food at the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) Christmas Cookout on Tuesday; led jockeys in pre-race prayers inside their quarters; and offered blessings to members of the Tampa Bay Downs starting gate crew.
DeLima also conducts a weekly non-denominational church service (usually held on Mondays) in the Chaplaincy’s trailer. DeLima, a product of Brazil who speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese, delivers his message in Spanish, with his wife Rachel translating to English. Their children – Sarah, 20, Bethany, 17, and Nathaniel, 13 – are part of their youth worship team and contribute with their voices and instruments during the service.
A large percentage of any racetrack’s backstretch population is itinerant, since few tracks conduct racing on a year-round basis. Many workers are in the United States on temporary work visas, with limited English-language skills that can make caring for themselves a bigger challenge than taking care of the Thoroughbreds.
“My main mission,” said DeLima, “is to give people the comfort that someone is caring for them while they are here and to help them in any way we can.”
The Chaplaincy works in concert with the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the HBPA to provide needed medical and dental services, as well as food, clothing, bedding and transportation. It is also an advocate for backstretch workers who need to deal with the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security, the Division of Motor Vehicles and the civil-justice system.
Beginning after the first of the year, DeLima hopes to organize soccer matches on the large fields across from the Track Kitchen and to start chess and domino tournaments. Caring for valuable racehorses can be a stressful occupation, and providing healthy outlets for workers is an ongoing goal.
Mike Murray, the Executive Director of the Tampa Bay HBPA, was instrumental in DeLima coming to the Oldsmar oval after meeting him about six years ago while teaching an advanced English language class. DeLima’s cheerful, outgoing approach and his devotion to God’s word through the Holy Bible have already impacted members of the backstretch community, Murray said.
“The fact he is fluent in English and Spanish is a huge plus,” Murray said. “Alex is a terrific person, and he has drawn the HBPA and the Chaplaincy closer. And he has found people (with pressing needs) who might not otherwise have come to us, because of his personality.”
DeLima, who has ministered to inmates both in Georgia and at the Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, Fla., strives to help every individual find a level of self-worth that might previously have gone untapped.
“We love people for who they are, not what they might have done in the past,” he said. “People have struggles, but usually when they see a chaplain they can open up to them and tell what is happening in their lives.”