Winners Foundation Puts Its Money on 2 Counselors to Help Stem Drug and Alcohol Abuse at Race Tracks

Times Staff Writer

For the race track groom who died of alcoholism, there was no one at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia to help.

For any other worker from now on, there are a priest and a jockey to help.

The Rev. Jerre Parks came to the track from St. Edmund's Episcopal Church in San Marino after preaching the Gospel for more than 17 years. Jose Martinez came from the backstretch, an admitted former abuser of drugs and alcohol.

The pairing may seem unusual, but so is the world of horse racing, where people live a kind of traveling circus life, closely tied and protective of one another--so protective that they would keep a groom's alcoholism a secret right up to the day it killed him.

Parks, 46, an outsider, is still trying to penetrate that close community. After years of counseling in the ministry, he is now executive director and counselor for the Winners Foundation, a nonprofit organization that was established in August with grants of $75,000 from the Oak Tree Racing Assn. and $25,000 from the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn.

The foundation is based at Santa Anita Race Track and also serves Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Del Mar Race Track and San Luis Rey Downs near San Diego. It hired Parks and Martinez to give free drug and alcohol counseling service to anyone connected with the tracks, in the same way that many large businesses offer assistance programs to their employes. It is the only such counseling service for Southern California race tracks.

Substance abuse at tracks, Parks and Martinez say, is probably the same as in society at large, but there are no statistics. Abusers are victims of stress and the disease of alcoholism, the same as people everywhere, and their numbers are increasing, Parks said.

The men said drug and alcohol abuse among jockeys is handled almost exclusively by the Jockeys' Guild, which imposes strict regulations on its members. Despite the guild's efforts, several jockeys have been suspended for drug use at tracks in other parts of the country. There have been no cases of drug abuse among jockeys at Santa Anita, but last July, after a series of mishaps at Hollywood Park, jockey Kenny Black tested positively for cocaine use and volunteered for a rehabilitation program.

Some racing officials say substance abuse is greater than the public suspects, but well hidden.

Two years ago Cliff Wickman, president of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, a private investigative agency that serves about 50 tracks, including Santa Anita and Del Mar, called drug use at the tracks "a serious problem." Chick Lang, general manager at Pimlico, said drug use by jockeys and backstretch workers is "part of a national tragedy."

There are an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people in the race track population in Southern California, ranging from grooms and trainers to administrators and office personnel, most of them shifting from place to place with the seasons.

"It seems like a different world here at first," Parks said of the Santa Anita backstretch, where his office is near the stables and the people who work there. "Everything is different--the sounds, sights, smells, hours, vocabulary. But there is real integrity, honesty and caring for the human dilemma.

"People have been trying to deal with their addiction in their own individual ways, and they are very grateful that we're here now. They tend to be pretty far gone by the time they come to us. They feel the net almost covering their face and they're at a point of desperation.

"The fact that a groom dies with a trainer who doesn't see that the problem exists doesn't surprise me. An alcoholic denies the presence of the disease and the public denies the problem."

Martinez, 43, knows the backstretch and its problems intimately. He said that during his riding career he controlled his weight and moods with amphetamines, meanwhile succumbing to the disease of alcoholism. Suspended from racing frequently and once ruled off all tracks for several months, he stopped drinking in 1975 and stopped riding in 1978. He is now a professional counselor and still works in the backstretch, exercising horses.

The counselors get most of their clients as referrals from employers and friends of the addicts. First they determine what treatment is needed and "if the desire and motivation are there," Parks said. "We provide love and support but they have to want it."

They keep their success and failure stories confidential, in accordance with Winners Foundation and professional ethics.

The good news is the program is working, as evidenced by the dozen or more referrals they have received each month. Some of their first clients have stayed dry for several months, they said.

The counselors say there are many programs and techniques that work for drug and alcohol users. Some clients require hospitalization, others are directed to Alcoholics Anonymous, and some respond to regular counseling sessions with Parks or Martinez.

The bad news is a trend that Parks has observed in recent years.

"We've been saying that cocaine and amphetamines are the most widely used drugs, but I'm beginning to get a sense that heroin is more of a problem than one might expect. I'm seeing more of it, and the hard reality is that the cure for heroin addiction is not very encouraging," he said.

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