HALLANDALE BEACH, FL -- When the main track closed at Gulfstream Park one recent morning for a renovation break, a faded old van began to slowly snake its way through the backstretch.
At every other row of barns, the van would stop and Chaplain Tom LaPointe would swing open the back and side doors to reveal boxes of sandwiches, Manatee River tomatoes, Del Monte bananas, burritos and gallons of milk.
"Who wants a sandwich?" asked the affable LaPointe while handing shopping bags to grooms and hotwalkers streaming out of the nearby barns.
"Hey, Tom, you have a pizza with any pepperoni?" someone shouted.
"For you anything," LaPointe said laughing. "Come on, take a bag."
Since the late 1980s, Chaplain Tom LaPointe has been a constant on racetracks in Florida. Whether helping those with substance abuse problems, holding bible study classes, funding a weekly medical clinic each winter, or organizing fishing trips, soccer leagues or barbeques, LaPointe has been ready at a moment's notice to pitch in and help.
"I love it," LaPointe said as he handed out bags with food and small-talked with backstretch workers. "I love giving back to these guys. It's really amazing how I got here. I was asked to share my progression of addiction and recovery with a group of teenagers 30 years ago and it slowly turned into this."
Gulfstream Park President Tim Ritvo said LaPointe has been a great help to the backstretch workers and their families.
"Tom has been a source of inspiration for many people," Ritvo said. "People at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows know they can count on him to inspire and help them during good times and bad. He's always available, always organizing events and meetings, and he's out there almost every morning giving back to the Thoroughbred community."
Phil Combest, president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (FHBPA), said; "I can't say enough about Chaplain Tom and the job he does for our backside workers. The guy is absolutely amazing, as are his assistants. Any problem a groom, hotwalker or exercise rider has, his or her first thought is, 'I'll go see Chaplain Tom.' He makes sure everyone has medical care and enough to eat. He provides solace in bad times and fishing trips or picnics in good times. We are really lucky to have this guy on our team."
Originally from the Bronx, LaPointe, a Christian and a recovering alcoholic since 1980, opened a youth center in South Florida in 1986 and began narcotics and alcoholics anonymous meetings.
I was working a lot with kids who were high-risk and a guy I knew said, 'Tom, you have to relax. You've got to come for a cup of coffee one morning.' I met him one morning and he told me he had to make a stop before we got coffee. It turned out he owned a few horses and the stop was at the track," LaPointe recalled.
"I couldn't believe how many people worked back here, and some of the guys were a bit raggedy. I told my friend to call me anytime he went. I slowly began to get to know some people, but I wasn't an insider. I had long hair and I think the guys on the backstretch thought I was a narc and the owners thought I was selling drugs.
"I was making some headway when my friend asked me to help his trainer's wife, who had a habit. I got her into rehab and suddenly I had credibility."
After running as many as eight halfway houses and helping backstretch workers at Calder, LaPointe met Jim Ryan of Ryehill Farm. "He asked me why I was doing everything that I was," LaPointe recalled. "I said, 'Someone reached out to me at a time I needed it and I thought it would be great to help others in the same spot.' "
Ryan not only helped support LaPointe's programs but also asked him to help backstretch workers at Gulfstream. He's been a fixture ever since.
LaPointe, who also runs a small, non-denominational church near Gulfstream, organizes a mobile medical clinic to visit Gulfstream each week during the winter as well as a barbeque where dozens of bicycles, appliances and clothes are given out. This summer, LaPointe organized a fishing trip and another barbeque. He also has alcoholics anonymous meetings held in Spanish.
"Things have gotten a lot better on the backstretch, and what Mr. (Frank) Stronach did here at Gulfstream, building these apartments for the backstretch workers, well...it's like night and day compared to what it was," LaPointe said. "But I want to give back, help the people I can. I love coming here and I love the people here."
LaPointe pulls up to another barn and swings the doors of the van open. "You like tomatoes? No. What about bananas. Take some bananas and a sandwich and, please, take some milk...."