by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am
The Paulick Report is introducing a new feature today, Good News Friday, which each week will focus on one of the many positive individuals or organizations that are part of the Thoroughbred industry.

Rest assured, we're not going soft on our approach to covering the industry, and will continue to report aggressively on the good, the bad and the ugly news seven days a week, as warranted. But there are many good stories that deserve telling, and we're going to make an effort to bring them to you each week.

In the first Good News Friday installment, appropriately on the day the Christian world knows as Good Friday, we tell the story of Father Catesby (Chris) Clay Jr., a member of the Kentucky family that owns and operates Runnymede Farm near Paris, Ky.

By Ray Paulick

Catesby Clay Jr. seemed destined to one day carry on the family's tradition of breeding Thoroughbreds at Runnymede Farm in Kentucky's Bourbon County, on land his great-great-grandfather, U.S. Representative Brutus Clay, had purchased for his son, Ezekiel Clay, in 1867, shortly after the end of the Civil War. Ezekiel Clay and his brother-in-law, Catesby Woodford set a high standard for breeding top-class runners at Runnymede from the beginning, and the farm remains a successful commercial operation to this day.

Young Catesby Clay, known to his friends and family as Chris, grew up on the family farm, but he didn't really get the bug for racing until after his freshman year in college, when he went to work as a hot walker for trainer Jim Baker. He returned to school that fall, graduating from Georgetown University in 1996, and later that year responded to a classified advertisement to proofread Stallion Register pages in the research department at Bloodhorse publications, where I was serving as editor in chief.

He got the job, albeit a temporary one, and made a favorable impression on Dan Liebman, then the research director who recommended hiring Chris for a full-time position when the company launched a new product in 1997, the MarketWatch newsletter.

Chris and I worked closely together on MarketWatch, and he was instrumental in creating a product of great value to breeders and owners that contained useful, never-before-seen statistical data on stallions, auction buyers and consignors, and trainers. He worked tirelessly through technical challenges and production snafus (though he was known to take occasional naps at his desk after staring at pages and pages of data for hours) to put out the product almost singlehandedly.

As much as he seemed to enjoy the work, which was certainly going to help him if he were to someday take over the operation of Runnymede, Chris became increasingly interested in a higher calling spurred on by his Christian faith and a desire, as he now says, “to give more of myself in serving others.”

In the spring of 2002 he used his vacation time to go on a mission trip to Croatia and Bosnia in the Balkans, and came back feeling exuberant. A couple of months later he attended World Youth Day in Toronto, Canada, and was inspired by the message of Pope John Paul II.

The Catholic Church was at a low point at the time, with multiple scandals involving priests and child sex abuse. The number of young men entering the priesthood was falling as a result. Chris, instead of letting the church's problems deflate the inner calling he felt, was more motivated than ever. In August of 2002, he entered the seminary at St. Meinrad School of Theology in southern Indiana. He studied there for five years and was ordained as a Catholic priest May 19, 2007, by Bishop Ronald Gainer for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Ky. He was then assigned to the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington as a parochial vicar, or associate pastor.

Chris was the first employee I ever lost to the priesthood, yet seeing his ordination was one of the happiest days of my professional life, because I grew to learn how important it was for him to be able to serve his fellow man.

“As my desire to serve others grew, people started coming up to me and asked if I'd thought of becoming a priest,” Father Chris, now 34 years old, recently told me. “At first I'd say 'no,' because I hadn't thought of it. But then I thought maybe they see something in me that I don't see in myself. I took it to prayer, and there was a confirmation in prayer.”

It was while at prayer shortly after he returned home from work one night that he said was his “definitive moment” pushing him toward the priesthood. “I knelt down by my bed and prayed, 'God, what is your will for me?'” Father Chris recalled. The telephone rang, and his father, Catesby Clay Sr., was on the line. Catesby was with Father Norman Fischer and seminarian Teka Berhanu, who had been a family friend since Chris's childhood.  His father put Teka on the line and Teka told Chris about his experience at a seminary in Rome and invited him to join him there, saying he would love it. “This was the answer to my prayer,” Father Chris now says.

He doesn't get to spend as much time at the racetrack or the family farm as he used to, and he's fallen a little bit behind in his reading about the Thoroughbred industry (though the Bloodhorse Stallion Register has a place on his church office bookshelf, alongside the Encyclopedia of Catholicism). Father Chris meets weekly with a faith-sharing group at the Keeneland track kitchen, and he tries to spend some time before or after the breakfast meeting walking through the stable area.

“All that involves is maybe coming up to someone and introducing myself if I don't know them or greeting someone I do know,” he said. “I might offer them a blessing if they like. It may be a brief visit, but I want my presence as a Catholic priest to remind everyone who sees me to remember that they are important before God; what they are doing is important, and that God loves them deeply. We all need more hope, love and mercy of God in our lives. Hopefully I can bring a little bit of Christ's love in my ever-so-brief visits.”

Many of the Christ the King parishioners are active in the Thoroughbred industry, and he always enjoys talking horses with them. “Of course, as a priest, we will be hit with weightier matters than horses,” he said.

“I'll never forget going in to see the late David Mullins of happy memory at the Markey Cancer Center last Derby Day,” Father Chris remembered of the popular Irish horseman “He was there with his son, Chase. The Daily Racing Form was laid out and they had the television channel turned to the races on the undercard. David said to me, 'I'm racing my Derby.' His response put everything in perspective.”

Father Chris said the funeral Mass for David Mullins only a few months later was one he'd never forget. “I celebrated the mass with Deacon Bill Rood and we went to the cemetery for the burial. There we stood as so many familiar faces walked in sorrow behind the horse-drawn hearse with a bag-piper playing. It was all very fitting for us to be there together in grief for our friend David who had brought so much life and love to us all.”

He also talks with Sandra White, who directs Women in Racing and Bethlehem Farm in Paris, Ky., about the ministry she does for women recovering from addictions. “In all this, the great challenge is not forgetting my primary responsibility involves serving the parishioners at the Cathedral,” he said.

So if you're wandering through the Keeneland stable area one morning and come across a young Catholic priest, be sure to say hello to Father Chris Clay. You'll find a man who is just as comfortable talking of things spiritual or equine, and someone who is helping make the world a better place, one person at a time.

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report 

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