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The Reverend and the Racetrack

Retired Catholic priest has a ministry that workers appreciate because he relates to them and even makes an occasional wager.

June 08, 2003|Terry Kinney | Associated Press

CINCINNATI — Comforter, benefactor, handicapper.

That's the Rev. Frank Niehaus, a retired Roman Catholic priest whose Backstretch Works of Mercy ministers to the hot-walkers, grooms and dirty-booted laborers in the racetrack barn area that the public seldom sees.

"He's the real deal. He walks the walk," said John Engelhardt, publicity director at River Downs. "He lives the life he preaches. He gets his hands dirty."

Niehaus, 74, retired as an active priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati eight years ago after a career at several parishes and in chancellery administration. Because of his love of racing, he soon started a ministry where he saw a need, on the backstretch at River Downs and at Turfway Park, in nearby Florence, Ky.

"Some people like cats and dogs," Niehaus said. "I like horses."

His work keeps him close to horses -- he owns one that has been unable to race because of an injury -- and the people who work with them.

"It's rewarding. I get a lot of satisfaction helping out," Niehaus said. "I like to think the Lord has blessed me."

Niehaus celebrated 48 years as a priest on May 28. He has been a high school teacher, pastor, jailhouse chaplain and supervisor of the Cincinnati archdiocese's cemeteries.

Niehaus provides spiritual and temporal help, sometimes getting a lawyer for a hot-walker who got into a brawl, maybe bringing a mattress for somebody who has been sleeping on a dorm floor.

"There's always somebody who needs something," Niehaus said.

Engelhardt describes Niehaus as a "one-man social service agency."

"He refers people to health centers, mental health centers -- he can get things done," he said.

Niehaus grew up in suburban North College Hill, where his father was police chief for 25 years. At least two cousins have been judges.

Robust and gregarious, and with a hearty laugh that carries, Niehaus once was a fund-raiser for the church. He still twists arms for donations at his old parishes every Christmas, so he can put on a dinner for backstretch workers and provide a bag of clothing and toiletries.

"These are delightful people," Niehaus said. "They're at work at 5 o'clock in the morning, seven days a week, and they don't get paid that much. It's a joy to help them."

Engelhardt attests to their needs.

"We employ more of the unemployable than any other industry," Engelhardt said. "All you have to have is a strong back and the will to get up early every morning and go to work."

Niehaus' ministry depends on donations, and River Downs chips in.

Engelhardt does a daily promotion with a sports-talk radio station, and the track pays $78 -- one dollar for each year the track has been in business -- to the designated charity of the radio host if he picks the winner of a featured race, or to Engelhardt's charity if he is right.

"Father Niehaus' Backstretch Works of Mercy has been our adopted charity for many years," Engelhardt said.

Niehaus celebrates Mass every Sunday in the River Downs grandstand. About 60 people, including owners, trainers, green-shirted mutuel clerks and concession workers, attended on a recent Sunday while tractors groomed the track for the afternoon's race card.

After the customary, "Go in peace, the Mass is ended," Niehaus said, "OK, let's raise the rafters," and led the singing of "God Bless America."

JoAnn Dragoo of Cincinnati, a mutuel clerk at the track for 26 years and a Sunday regular, goes to work shortly after Mass.

"I love what he has to say," Dragoo said. "He talks to us in our language about everyday things. I love him."

Trainer Art Zeis is often there, too.

"It's very convenient," Zeis said. "We train seven days a week, so Sunday morning is like every other morning. Usually we're done by 11 o'clock, when Mass starts."

After Mass, Niehaus visits the jockey's room to recap his sermon, ending with a prayer for a safe day in a dangerous sport. One of River Downs' leading jocks, Jose Calo, looks forward it.

"You feel safe. You feel good. There's something about him, something good about him," Calo said. "You always feel comfortable with him."

Engelhardt is host of the "Regular Guy" handicapping show that is seen between races in-house and at tracks that carry River Downs' simulcasts. Niehaus sometimes sits in to offer his picks.

"He's a very good handicapper. He's bred horses and owned them. He knows what goes into the game," Engelhardt said. "He's my most popular co-host. I get calls from all over the country whenever he's on. People enjoy the humor he brings to the show."

Niehaus wears vestments for Mass, but otherwise his attire is casual -- no more Roman collar and black suit. He likes an occasional wager, a social drink and a good cigar.

"You sometimes forget you're sitting next to a priest. That's why we have so much fun," Engelhardt said.

Niehaus' ministry is independent, although there is an organization, the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, that operates at several tracks.

A racetrack is home to many itinerant workers, who eat at the track kitchen and live in rent-free dorms.

"The people come from different walks of life," Engelhardt said. "Father Niehaus is someone they all can relate to. He uses their work and love of horses as a common ground."

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