Three Chimneys presents Good News Friday: A Doorway to Recovery
Each day on the Churchill Downs backside, Linda Doane opens her door and invites in a story.
It could be the story of a jockey who failed a Breathalyzer test. It could be a groom struggling with the temptations of the racetrack. It could be an employee whose life is spiraling out of control.
Doane’s job, as representative of the Lifestyles Program, is to show them there is a way out of trouble.
“I can’t go through the door for you, but by God, I’m going to push you toward the door,” Doane said. “Everybody needs a little extra guidance.”
Most cases she sees involve drugs or alcohol. The goal of the program is to intervene before it’s too late.
“Either you end up in jail or you die,” Doane said. “It just progresses that far. If you self-destruct hard enough, either the police get involved, or your body can’t do it anymore. There’s a lot of misery in between.”
The employee assistance program has been around for many years at Churchill Downs, but in a round of budget cuts, Lifestyles lost its funding from the track. Turns out, it may have been a blessing in disguise.
“The track chaplain said we need to reach out to this program, and that’s how we got connected with The Healing Place.”
The Healing Place is a Louisville non-profit that serves as both a homeless shelter and a recovery center for the addicted. The registered 501 (c)(3) currently provides Churchill’s Lifestyles initiative with all of its funding plus counseling and support staff.
“They have a program that reaches out to people in the community, but this is their first venture reaching out to an industry,” said Doane. “One of their big things was finding AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) leadership in the Hispanic community.”
While many backstretch workers are Hispanic, Doane is quick to point out that a wide range of people end up in her office, either mandated by track security or on their own.
“People have a perception of what a drunk looks like,” said Doane, who previously worked on the backstretch as a hot walker, groom and assistant for several trainers. “But I’ve seen them all. From vets to racing officials to management, there’s not one job category that I have not seen. It’s an equal opportunity disease.”
At any one time, Doane said there are between 18 to 35 people receiving help, whether it is addiction recovery, anger management counseling or another form of assistance. While the Lifestyles Program operates quietly behind the scenes most of the time, there are moments when a jarring event shines a light on its necessity.
On May 10, 2011, three days after the Kentucky Derby, 24-year-old jockey Michael Baze was found dead in his Cadillac Escalade on the Churchill backside. The coroner’s office later said Baze died of “multiple substance intoxication” – a lethal mix of cocaine and pain medication. Baze was facing a cocaine possession charge at the time of his death and had been fined $500 two months earlier at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., for failing a Breathalyzer.
Doane said Baze’s death was a wake-up call.
“It was at that point that the Jockeys’ Guild came on board,” said Doane. “And we started working really closely with them and The Healing Place, trying to come up with some good education programs and materials for racetrack management.
“When (Baze) had his consequences at Hot Springs, why wasn’t that addressed a little more harshly?” Doane asked. “It wasn’t Oaklawn’s fault – there just isn’t a standard out there that says this is what’s going to happen. Maybe we need to look at that as an industry.”
Doane is also hoping to generate donor interest to give the Lifestyles Program a financial boost.
“We have a lot of wealth in this industry,” Doane said. “Hopefully, we might find an owner who is compassionate and may want to contribute. Everybody that goes through The Healing Place – it’s free for them.”
While tragedies involving jockeys make headlines, Doane said there are many other cases that no one hears about. Good stories, too.
“You don’t get to see the ones that address their issues and go on to lead a perfect life,” Doane said. “If I look at some of the people that are celebrating three or five years of sobriety, that’s pretty darn cool. Fathers that are able to step up to the plate and pay their child support. You repair one person, you start to repair the family.”