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Keeneland's chaplain was called to the post

The inspiration is Psalm 27 — "the Lord is my light and salvation" — and Pastor Michael Powers' message to the valets and riders meeting in the jockey suites at Keeneland is that God will provide, "even if it is a challenge today to have courage and confidence" in the face of what can seem like overwhelming bad news.

Before he begins to preach in earnest, "Pastor Michael," as he has become known after 10 years of services, reaches deftly inside his dusky blue jacket to press what looks like an ancient beige computer mouse.

Within minutes, his hushed voice grows strong and his hands start to tremble more visibly as he nimbly moves through his 10-minute sermon.

The device is a deep-brain stimulator that sends an electric impulse to electrodes inside his chest. When "on," it transmits a continuous signal to other wires inside his brain, which calms his Parkinson's disease tremors but restricts the power and cadence of his voice. So when he preaches, he turns the stimulator off, and Pastor Michael can focus more completely on sharing with his unusual flock.

He is the first to tell you his fight with Parkinson's, which began four years ago, is not central to his work.

As Keeneland's official chaplain, Pastor Michael is equal parts spiritual adviser, charitable fund administrator and social worker.

He is one of the few ministers who deals, literally, with everyone, "paupers to kings," Keeneland president Nick Nicholson said.

"There is a community out here," Nicholson said. "We are like a small town. We are all connected out here, and Pastor Michael is the great common denominator."

During most of the year, Pastor Michael deals with the 700 or so souls who work at the track through all seasons. During the spring meet, which this year runs through April 23, that number swells threefold.

During each meet, spring or fall, something will happen that requires special attention, he said. A jockey might fall, a patron might become ill — two during his tenure have died. Plus there are the needs of the everyday workers: help with food and clothing; transportation to the doctor or dentist; or, in one recent instance, trying to help someone find a suitable, affordable house to rent.

"Not every minister is cut out to be a chaplain," said Claudio Toro, who is the Spanish-speaking pastor at the track and works closely with Pastor Michael. It is much more than preaching the Gospel, he said. "It is a 24/7 job.

"You have to have a heart for people."

Pastor Michael said he hesitated to take the track job, offered to him by the former chaplain, whom he had known since they had both attended Lexington Bible College in the mid-1960s.

A Lexington native, Pastor Michael had served 30 years at traditional Baptist churches in Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky. He couldn't really envision a life at a racetrack, but he believed that familiar tug that told him the Lord was leading the way.

He took the job, he said, but for the first six months, whenever he was asked what he did for a living, he almost apologized for his work.

One day, he said, it dawned on him that perhaps the track was just the place for him to be. There are sinners everywhere, he said, smiling at how to explain the situation delicately, but maybe at the track, their foibles are just a little more out in the open.

He never apologized again.

His wife of 44 years, Janice, knows that during the spring and fall meets, she will be pretty much a widow, he said. Work starts early in the morning and goes to "30 past dark," he said. He holds a daily meeting with the jockeys at noon and is on call all day, every racing day. His cell phone never goes dark.

On Sundays, he leads a 10 a.m. service, meets with the jockeys at noon and is available the rest of the day for whatever arises.

Pastor Michael said he encounters substance abuse and gambling problems, but not as many as you might expect. When he does, he refers those people for continuing treatment with specialists.

Unlike traditional church ministers, he deals with a fairly mobile group. He and other track chaplains keep in touch, but he often doesn't know what happens to people he helps.

"I love to watch him work," said Nicholson, the track president. "I love how he interacts with people."

He focuses on a person intently, Nicholson said, and pays attention in a crowd. Although he is a hand-shaker and back-slapper, Pastor Michael is not a glad-hander, working a crowd for the sake of it, Nicholson said.

Pastor Michael also serves as a bridge to social services in the community and is available to deal with the unexpected grief and woes that can come with everyday life.

Nicholson said that when Pastor Michael comes to him with a financial need to be helped by Keeneland's general fund, Nicholson rarely questions him. He doesn't want to know the private specifics, he said. He trusts that if the pastor is asking, the need is real.

This week, a backside worker learned that her adult daughter was killed in an accident, leaving the worker's grandchild orphaned several states away and the worker with no way to get there. Pastor Michael is taking up a collection, but if need be, he'll ask for help from Keeneland. One way or another, he'll get the woman home.

A horse-racing novice when he came to Keeneland, Pastor Michael says he hopes that this will be his final job as a pastor, one he will work until he cannot work anymore or dies. At 64, he said, "I know nothing about Thoroughbreds, I know nothing about horses, ... just to get out of their way and don't let them bite you.

"But I've been in the people business a long time," he said, watching the jockeys, some in racing silks, some in jeans, chatter and laugh in the clubhouse.

And at the track, Pastor Michael has found his people.

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