Father Frank Niehaus at River Downs

Father Frank Niehaus at River Downs

John Engelhardt

Backstretch Advocate Frank Niehaus Dies

Cincinnati priest helped workers at River Downs and Turfway, and also raced horses.

Cincinnati, Ohio, native Father Frank Niehaus, who served as the pastor of several parishes in his hometown in addition to heading numerous chaplaincies, and later was a racehorse breeder and owner, died Sept. 26 at age 84.

Known as a hard-working, gregarious, and personable priest, when he officially retired from the archdiocese he created a parish of his own on racing's backstretches at River Downs and Turfway Park. He called the program "Backstretch Works of Mercy."

Niehaus, the oldest of six children from North College Hill, Ohio, entered the seminary after his cousin, who was in the seminary, was killed while playing football. According to family accounts he said at the services, "I'll take his place." Niehaus was ordained in May 1955.

"Father Frank," as he was affectionately known at the racetrack, had a penchant for horse racing and the unique blend of individuals who gave the sport color. Upon his official retirement he bred and raced horses on the Kentucky-Ohio circuit while creating the Backstretch Works of Mercy.

Niehaus celebrated Mass every Sunday while there was live racing at River Downs and Turfway. Mass was held after workouts so backstretch workers and track employees could attend after and before their work shifts.

He could relate to his parishioners and would often weave horse-related examples into his sermon. After every service he would supply the workers with pastries, juices, and coffee.

One of most-remembered services came the day after the 2003 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) when he hit the superfecta. After he read a Gospel that discussed Christ and his interaction with his apostles, Niehaus paused and said: "You see Christ, too, had a Funny Cide, and he was the original Empire Maker , preaching that Peace RulesAtswhatimtalknbout!" They were the top four finishers in the race.

Niehaus would often help to arrange medical assistance for backstretch personnel and coordinate clothing drives. Every summer at River Downs he would designate a day on which he bought lunch for all workers on the backstretch. In the winter he put on a Christmas party at Turfway, where he would distribute gift packs of gloves, socks, and warm clothing while coordinating a children's Christmas presentation.

Services for Niehaus will be held at The Community of the Good Shepherd, a parish he founded, Sept. 28. The address is 8815 E. Kemper Road, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45249. Visitation will precede the Mass at Good Shepherd from 9:30 a.m. to the start of Mass at 12:30 p.m. EDT.