As he makes his rounds through the barn area on a chilly morning, the new Tampa Bay Downs Chaplain, Pete Crisswell, has plenty of time to reflect on his lifetime at the racetrack: the good, bad and not-so-pretty.
“The reality of the racetrack is that horses are the kings here and the people play second fiddle, and because of that, sometimes the people get left in the dust,” Crisswell said. “My job is to bring some good things to them and try to help them with whatever they are struggling with.”
Crisswell, 74, started in racing almost 60 years ago as a teenage jockey at bush tracks in Oklahoma and Kansas – “just little, out-of-the-way mudholes, county-fair type deals,” he says.
Talk about a lifelong education. A few accomplishments, so many mistakes made.
“I had some talent, but I misused it. And the better I did, the worse I acted,” Crisswell said between barns.
“I spent years on the track when I never heard Jesus Christ mentioned except as a curse word. Then I found a new way to use His name. We are bringing Jesus to the people here as a personal friend and their personal savior, and the results are great.”
Crisswell has been a member of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America since 1982. He has been Chaplain at tracks in California, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Wyoming, as well as Pennsylvania, where he ministers at Presque Isle Downs, the spring and summer home for many Tampa Bay Downs horsemen and backstretch workers.
Looking back, Crisswell is amazed how quickly the years have flown by since he accepted Jesus. “It's kind of dizzying to think about all the places I've been, bringing the Lord's message to the people,” he said. “But I enjoy starting new ministries and helping to rebuild those already in place.”
Every track has different challenges and rewards. One year in New Mexico, he galloped horses and worked in security because a couple of the tracks he was at couldn't afford to pay a chaplain. During winter months at most tracks, his most valuable offerings can be a blanket and a hot cup of coffee.
A few years ago, Crisswell thought about retiring. “Then a friend of mine in Wyoming said there was a need, and I served five different tracks there in one season,” he said.
Always, Crisswell is reminded that he is an instrument of the Lord. “The love that comes out of me isn't mine. He gave it to me,” he said. “So I got to give it away. I can't hog it for myself.”
Crisswell gets on the backside public-address system each morning to deliver a devotional message before touring the barns. On a recent morning, he referenced a bumper sticker that reads “Life is hard and then you die.”
Life is always a challenge, but to Criswell it is so much more.
“Life with God in your heart isn't perfect, especially when things go wrong,” he told his audience over the loudspeaker. “With God, it's hundreds of miles better than being out in the dark old world alone. Remember, God loves you and He's got a better way.”
On his walk, his style is low-key, unobtrusive. Crisswell knows most of the people he sees on his walk are involved in the duties essential to keeping Thoroughbreds healthy and happy at the track: feeding, bathing, walking, bandaging, preparing for a workout.
The big thing is being there whenever a need arises. Crisswell conducts a weekly service at 6 p.m. each Monday in the Chaplaincy office, but it is his one-on-one, personal outreach that often makes the biggest impact.
“When you have problems, you can talk to him and he'll give you really good advice,” said trainer John Guciardo. “Really, the main thing for me is that seeing him in the morning makes me stop and take pause, which I normally wouldn't do.
“In this age of computers and cell phones, that's a big thing. He keeps you grounded.”
“He has so much experience and wisdom that he can relate to anyone, on and off the track,” said jockeys' agent Therese Powers. “In my opinion, he is the best racetrack chaplain I've met. He knows how to incorporate God within the racetrack story so people can understand his message.
“Pete is there for anyone needing help or advice, or a ride to get somewhere. He's always positive, and whatever needs to get done, he'll get it done,” Powers said.
An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Crisswell has three grown children; his sons live in Montana and Texas and his daughter lives in Oklahoma. All were raised around the racetrack, an environment that can be richly rewarding and heartbreakingly deflating, sometimes in the same day.
Crisswell accepted the Lord as his personal savior at a family reunion in 1980, shortly after he retired as a jockey. Before his salvation, Crisswell led an empty existence. He drank to excess, worked at a welding job that affected his health and lived in a trailer house that had been damaged by a tornado.
“Life was miserable, yet I was still doing all the stuff that made it miserable,” he said.
Even after two of his brothers confronted him about his lifestyle and behaviors, Crisswell resisted their urgings to let God into his life. He was certain he didn't need Jesus and he didn't need his brothers' love, when it came down to it.
But at the next year's family reunion, his life in shambles, Crisswell realized all those things he'd been too proud to accept represented first steps toward redemption. He finally was ready to welcome Jesus as his savior, and his life has been on a relatively smooth path since.
“When I accepted the Lord into my heart, it made such a change in my life,” Crisswell said. “I promised I would live for God as hard as I lived for the devil all those years. I started attending church, reading the Bible and getting into the Christian lifestyle, and the Lord opened the door for me to come back to the racetrack as a chaplain.”
Crisswell, who has also ministered to rodeo performers, enjoys walking through the vast Tampa Bay Downs barn area, where such a diverse collection of people work with horses. “If somebody needs a good word or a quick prayer, I'm available,” he said. “And I'm excited and thrilled to be a working member of the successful, long-term ministry here at Tampa Bay Downs.”
He serves as “boots on the ground” for the teachings of Jesus Christ and for those who don't know where to go with their problems. Under the guidance of President Sharyn Wasiluk, the Race Track Chaplaincy of America – Tampa Bay Downs Division provides a variety of services to the backstretch population, from clothing and blankets during the winter to continuing education lessons for foreign workers.
Medical and dental aid is provided by Sister Sara's Catholic Charities Mobile Medical Services, in collaboration with the Tampa Bay Downs Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
Crisswell seeks to uplift people's hearts and souls with his message that God's word is the surest path to finding the answers so many seek.
“When I first entered the ministry, the Lord told me I needed to show Jesus wearing boots and a hat. That's kind of goofy-sounding, but that's exactly what he said to me,” Crisswell said.
“My mission is to bring the good news of Jesus to people who haven't heard it or don't realized that God loves them, regardless of anything they've done or they aren't doing. He's a people God, He speaks horse and He wants these people in His family.”
Crisswell is on call to welcome all those with a desire to belong.
The Race Track Chaplaincy of America – Tampa Bay Downs Division will hold its annual Christmas party for backstretch workers at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 20 under the Trackside Picnic Pavilion Tent.
Dinner, dessert and children's gifts will be donated by supporters of the work being done on the backside. Kids of all ages will get to have their picture taken with Santa Claus.
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