By Ed Odeven
TOKO (March 4, 2020) — Shawn Kennedy, employed as the racing chaplain for Ontario Thoroughbred Racing, has a specialized job. It requires empathy, dedication, the ability to connect with people and a commitment to prayer and providing counsel on a wide range of matters.
Kennedy has worked at Woodbine Racetrack since 2004, serving the community with distinction.
In September 2016, the Toronto Thoroughbred Racing Club honored him with an Award of Merit for lifetime service to the thoroughbred racing industry. That same month, Canadian Thoroughbred magazine published a feature about Kennedy, highlighting his work and the deep ties he’s forged with folks within the community.
“He has walked more miles on Woodbine’s shedrows than most hotwalkers,” Canadian Thoroughbred reported. “His finger is on the pulse of the entire backstretch. Each day he makes the rounds of Woodbine’s barns talking to an aging population of workers, and trainers desperate for help because of changing government immigration policies regarding foreign workers. He welcomes the newcomers and lets them know he is there for them…”
“I know what people go through on bad days,” Kennedy, who’s now in his early 60s, told Canadian Thoroughbred. “The biggest problem on the track isn’t drug abuse, alcoholism or gambling. The No. 1 problem is loneliness.”
Which is why Kennedy’s kindness and ability to connect with people have made him a vital part of the fabric of the community.
Roy Dwight, one of the members of Kennedy’s volunteer staff, told the magazine that Kennedy has made a positive impact at Woodbine.
“I met Shawn when he first came to Woodbine. He was galloping horses, along with his pastoral duties. I told him that I would help in any way that I could, and have been doing that ever since,” Dwight was quoted as saying. “I help with his fundraisers, his annual golf tournament, serving food to the homeless, and am the chef for the barbecues and dinners for the backstretch workers that he organizes throughout the year.
“He is an honorable, hard working, dedicated and caring man, and the best thing that has happened to the Woodbine backstretch.”
In 2017, Jim Bannon, president of the Race Track Chaplaincy of Canada, discussed Kennedy’s work and the mission of race chaplains in Canada.
“We’re feeding people. We’re clothing people. We’re counseling people. We’re supporting people. And Shawn does that in a variety of ways,” Bannon told Woodbine.com. “For those that want to worship, they have an opportunity to worship. For those that want to belong to a community, they get to belong to a community, where somebody actually cares about what’s happening in their lives.”
Seeking to learn more about Shawn Kennedy’s career and wanting to understand more about his perspective on being a racing chaplain, I recently reached out to him and requested an interview.
Our Q&A follows.
What was the career path that led to your becoming a racing chaplain? Was it a calling?
I never worked as a jockey. An amateur jockey rides for the pleasure of racing, does not get paid. I was a youth pastor during that time (’90s), but always wanted to be a chaplain. I was raised in a horse racing family and trained for a while. I was a volunteer chaplain at our track in Winnipeg, Assiniboia Downs, but we didn’t have the wherewithal to make it a full-time job.
I did feel a calling based on my beliefs as a Christian but also having the compassion for those who would be classified as the “least of these,” according to Matthew 25.
What are the most challenging aspects of your work? What are the most rewarding or satisfying aspects of being a racing chaplain?
The most challenging aspect is letting people know that they are loved by God even though most of the racing community may suggest otherwise. For many, racing is the only thing they know. There is a caste system in racing that takes advantage of the lowest on the totem pole and it is incredibly hard to break through to people whose self-image is poor. Affirming people and aiding in areas they have needs is a way to help them see themselves as God sees them.
A satisfying result is when a person who has been a victim starts to advocate for others and sees the needs of others before their own. As an example, we have become involved in a project called Operation Christmas Child that prepares shoebox-sized gifts boxes for children in underdeveloped countries and regularly contribute over 300 boxes annually.
How does someone become a racing chaplain? Is there vocational training at a school for this work? Does a career as a jockey, trainer, stable hand, etc. really lend itself to having at least some of the skills needed for this occupation?
Being a minister helps in being a chaplain, but the greatest gift is understanding the role a chaplain plays in the workplace. I always say that we are here by the grace of God and Woodbine, so it helps to remind me and our ministry that we are on somebody else’s turf (pardon the pun). There is an annual meeting for the Race Track Chaplaincy of America (RTCA), but I haven’t attended for a while — just not my cup of tea. People can go there to pick up training, but at the end of the day the best chaplain is a good listener. It does help to have a background in racing because you can say that you’ve walked in their shoes.
Can you detail a “normal work week” for you? And does the work vary quite a bit week to week, during peak racing season and times in which there are few or no races? Is there a normal set of hours that you and other racing chaplains work each week in Canada?
A normal week consists of preparing and conducting a Chapel Service. Our “church” service is on Tuesday, which is a dark, or non-racing day here. We hold a weekly Learning Lunch which blends a movie, (a true story with biblical applications or documentary), and a lunch on Wednesday, which is night racing here. Once a month from June-September we take our Chapel Service outdoors and add a barbecue. We also host an annual Christmas Party for the workers, the first Friday after the meet ends in December.
During the week I am in our multi-purpose center, which is called the Jake Howard Center. It is home to a Clothing Depot, Computer Station and Library. I also walk the barn area to visit with people to let them know I’m available. Woodbine has 39 barns with 60 horses each, so do the math. We have medical clinic, (Back on Track Medical Clinic), which is manned weekly by doctors or nurses from a local health clinic. The highest priority is a death or injury, which is usually in the morning. When horses and people collide the horse always wins. Everything stops for that. When races are on I watch every race, either live or on TV or on my phone. If a rider gets hurt, I can get to the hospital as soon as possible. I pray with the jockeys before the races in the jocks’ room.
In the fall, we host third-year nursing students from a local college who do a practicum from October-December. It is much busier during the racing season, but people do live here year-round, plus many work on farms in the area and do get injured from time to time. As an example, we have had two workers die this winter, plus an elderly trainer and owner. That’s four since December.
(Editor’s note: He then provided an example from mid-February of his hectic schedule.)
Most chaplains put in 40 hours a week but I am always on call, so some weeks are longer than others. I am doing a funeral this Thursday the 13th, which is 7 p.m., so it will be a long day. We also have an annual Golf Tournament, which is a fund-raiser, in August. That is a ton of work!