Column: Del Mar chaplain comforts, counsels amid uncertain days

At Del Mar, chaplain Eli Hernandez helps backstretch workers with everything from clothing and food to immigration paperwork.
Chaplain Eli Hernandez prays with starting gate workers before races Nov. 6 at Del Mar. Hernandez comforts and counsels workers at Del Mar, San Luis Rey Downs and Santa Anita.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Eli Hernandez meets the needs of vulnerable workers in need of clothing, food or a trusting ear


Strolling among the hay bales and whinnying horses in trainer Doug O’Neill’s Del Mar barn, 4-foot-8, 95-pound Carrie Wellman detailed the darkest chapter of her life. As workers tend to tenants, she calmly reveals she was raped and repeatedly abused by a partner.

The former jockey, an alcoholic, demanded Wellman follow his tortuous weight-loss regimen — coffee or water and one meal a day, with a vegetable, a protein and maybe a small amount of fruit — that caused her doctor to fear she was anorexic. Her gaunt frame dipped to a frightening 82 pounds.

The emotional and psychological scars lingered far longer than the bruises.

“He said, ‘I can finally take you out in public,’ ” Wellman said.

Another round of physical abuse three years ago — she estimated it happened more than 20 times during the relationship, but it’s hardly something a victim cares to count — triggered something. The horrifying scene in Pennsylvania unfolded in the exact spot of the rape.

“The next morning, I laid next to a 1,200-pound filly and cried on her mane,” said Wellman, 48, a groom who administers therapy to O’Neill horses. “She nuzzled me and treated me like a foal. She knew something was wrong.”

Instinctive, intuitive and caring. That’s the gut-deep feeling Wellman experienced two months ago when she met Chaplain Eli Hernandez, the 57-year-old associate pastor at Pico Rivera Friends Church who was born in the East L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

Hernandez serves as the spiritual and life-navigating glue at Del Mar, San Luis Rey Downs and Santa Anita. He and wife, Martha, began working with those toiling in horse racing’s pre-dawn shadows seven years ago at Florida’s Tampa Bay Downs. They returned to California to reunite with 20-something son, Matthew.

“I asked if we could talk and we got into the heart of it,” Wellman said.

Eli Hernandez and his wife, Martha, continue assisting those in need during pandemic.
Chaplain Eli Hernandez helps, listens to backstretch workers at Del Mar.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

More than simply a confidant, Hernandez became a level-headed counselor, advising Wellman to apply for a restraining order amid whispers her abuser might move to California. The man known to many as “Chap” learned about the wrenching poetry she penned about her harrowing assault, encouraging her to get the work published.

Abusers break down a person, stripping away confidence and self-worth. Rather than rip away the bandages masking Wellman’s demons, Hernandez inspired her writing, building up some of what had been jack-hammered to unrecognizable dust.

“The best way to describe him? He has a genuine heart,” Wellman said. “He cares. He’s there.”

‘One stitch at a time’

The pain swirling around Hernandez’s own life would be enough for crater focus and commitment. He lost a nephew to a heroin overdose and, in April, a niece to COVID-19. Four weeks ago, he buried his brother after he succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver.

Instead of retreating, resolve strengthened. If Hernandez asked others to fight through all their agony and ache, he needed to as well. Physician, heal thyself.

“We’re all fighting through these things,” Hernandez said. “You might look at me and think there’s no struggles, there’s no challenges. It hits all of us. So, let’s get through this together.”

The horse-racing ministry of Hernandez can be measured in kind countenance and quiet footsteps. He glides from stall to stall in the barns, checking in, gauging temperatures, deciphering non-verbal clues and casually reminding those he encounters that a patient ear is a short conversation away.

An older stable worker in a fading Gap sweatshirt, U.S. flag mask and dusty cowboy hat thanked Hernandez for helping him sort through airline tickets to visit the family in Guatemala he has not seen in five years. The chaplain helps non-English speakers deal with everything from employment paperwork to clothing, food and housing. Sometimes, workers hang out in his on-track offices to grab a slice of pizza and nap.

There’s no problem too big or too small.

It’s about being trustworthy and available, office hours be damned.

“We’re not going to be here two months and walk away,” Hernandez said. “Even through COVID-19, Martha and I are still here. We’re not going to hide under a rock and when this goes away, we pop up again. We’re not going to do that.”

When Del Mar's racetrack is in session, Chaplain Eli Hernandez cares for the needs of workers.
Chaplain Eli Hernandez routinely visits the barns at Del Mar to earn trust, assist workers.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Those who sweat through low-paid backstretch jobs nervously peek over shoulders. Stresses are exacerbated during a global pandemic that continues to batter fragile lives.

Keep your head down. Work hard. Repeat.

“Losing their jobs is the biggest fear, because this is all they know,” Hernandez said. “A lot of these individuals don’t have their immigration papers. They can’t just go to Walmart or some other job or go to school.”

Hernandez relayed a sad, recent example.

“I just did a memorial at San Luis Rey Downs a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “A person who started coughing was told to go to the hospital to get himself checked. He didn’t go because he was afraid of losing his job. He ended up getting a fever. He continued to work until he couldn’t work anymore. He was rushed to the emergency room, where he went into a coma.

“Not long after that, he died.”

There’s nothing preachy about this man of God. He’s more of a surgeon, wielding delicate tools to treat open wounds.

“One stitch at a time,” Hernandez said.

Legal assistant Valerie Lippman met Hernandez at San Luis Rey Downs in the days following the devastating, 2017 Lilac fire that claimed 46 horses and seriously burned two trainers.

Lippman volunteers her time to help workers with paperwork to replace green cards, forms for citizenship, freedom of information act requests to gather documents and far more. She marvels at the boundless commitment Hernandez makes to so many.

The clothing drops. The food donations. The holiday packages. Driving someone for groceries, if needed.

At the 2019 Breeders’ Cup, Hernandez and others of the cloth organized a celebration for backstretch workers at an event focused on millionaires and, in some cases, billionaires.

“He’s so caring,” Lippman said. “You see it. He doesn’t have to say a word. You know how some people, you can just see it? He exudes it. He’s loved by everyone.”

In July, Lippman suffered a heart attack. Seven days later, she underwent a triple bypass.

Even when Hernandez could not be there because of COVID-related safety protocols, he found a way to be there anyway.

“He prayed with me on the phone,” she said. “He would have come to my room, but they obviously weren’t allowing that. He’s an amazing person.”

Relentlessly, dependably there

On a recent afternoon at Del Mar, Hernandez gathered workers preparing to engage in horse racing’s most dangerous job — the starting gate. Race after race, the group muscles stubborn, 1,000-plus-pound horses into post position. The powerful competitors rear up. Hooves fly.

As heads bowed, Hernandez read a fittingly selected scripture.

“This is from Proverbs 21:31,” he said. “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.”

At each corner of Del Mar, Hernandez reminds people they are welcome, valued and appreciated. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Martha conducts English classes. Hernandez handles Bible study on Thursdays. Every day, they distribute water and clothing. Each Friday, they hand out food to ease grumbling stomachs. Last time, 192 people showed up.

The couple organizes a jockey’s barbeque, where the riding stars say thanks to the sport’s tireless connective tissue.

At a time of such uncertainty, Hernandez represents dependable bedrock.

“Nothing feels normal right now,” said Wellman, the groom in O’Neill’s barn. “There are people wondering if they can eat. His value has quadrupled.”

Wellman understands that Hernandez’s support of her poetry means infinitely more than simple encouragement.

It’s critical validation.

“It made me feel appreciated as a person and valued,” she said. “I’m not an embarrassment. I can feel good about who I am.”

Hernandez embodies selflessness in an age of division and selfishness. As the U.S. sinks into unshakable tribalism, he’s living, breathing empathy. He extends a hand, not a scathing social media missive.

Truth is, Hernandez offers the most needed tonic of our times.

“I want to let people know, No. 1, that there’s hope,” Hernandez said. “Yesterday is gone. We can learn from it. Tomorrow’s not here. Let’s make the best of today and help each other. I like horses a lot, but I love people.”

Still, he fails to reach some.

The ravages of alcoholism and drug dependency often times refuse to loosen an unforgiving grip. Hernandez has watched those shuttled away by ambulance repeat the same life-threatening behaviors days later. For each success story, someone suffers in silence.

Then, there’s Wellman.

The woman reduced to a shell has flourished. She smiled broadly while recently parading $5.2 million winner and retired Lava Man outside of the barn as Hernandez fed carrots to the 17-race winner.

In world where so much is needed, Hernandez wears as many hats as time allows. He can be calm. He can be funny. He can be wise counsel or critical conduit.

“It’s almost like he can tell what you need — and he’s that,” Wellman said.

In a world sorely in need of exactly that, he’s racetrack gold.

— Bryce Miller is a sports columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune