For the first 45 years of his life, Vincent Harris had absolutely no experience with horse racing. As a youngster growing up in New York City, working at a Thoroughbred racetrack was one of the last things on earth Harris envisioned for himself as an adult.
Of course, being drug-addicted, homeless, and near death on several occasions was also not something a young Harris could have predicted for himself either. Nor could he have foreseen his amazing life turnaround, which has seen him earn a master’s degree in divinity, and for the last 12 years work as the chaplain at Thistledown.
Looking back at his whirlwind life now, Harris still has trouble believing what has transpired.
“When I recall being on the streets of New York City, eating food out of the garbage, having lice all over my body, shoplifting, sleeping in parks and crack houses, and everything else I have been through, it is amazing how God has blessed me enough to be where I am now,” said Harris, 58, who is believed to be the first and only African-American chaplain at an American Thoroughbred racetrack. “The thing I clearly see now is, if I can have such a wonderful life after where I’ve come from, there is hope for everyone.”
Life as a child in New York City started out promising enough for Harris, who was an alter boy in grade school. Harris was an exceptional student while attending Catholic high school, graduated with honors, and received a full scholarship to college. After a brief stint on Wall Street, Harris wound up attending Herbert H. Lehman College in the Bronx, where he graduated with a business degree in 1975 and had dreams of going to law school.
He never made it there.
Instead, Harris’ occasional drug use as a college student gradually became worse. What started out as experimental marijuana use escalated to hard-core drugs such as mescaline, cocaine, acid, and crack. It wasn’t long before the once-promising student started selling drugs and then became addicted to perhaps the most powerful street drug, heroin. Six years after graduating college, Harris was homeless in New York.
“It was from about 1981 to 1983 that I was homeless,” Harris recalled. “During that time I OD’d twice, saw my girlfriend get stabbed to death trying to buy crack, and nearly died myself after being stabbed. I slept in abandoned buildings, parks, on subway platforms—you name it. Life was so unpredictable. I also caught pneumonia two winters and almost died in Bellevue Hospital, the place where I was born.
“Eventually, I saw no way out of this life and contemplated suicide. My plan was to swallow 40 pills with a bottle of Olde English 800.
“I remember kneeling outside of this church and saying to God, ‘If you get me out of this, I will follow you to the four corners of the world.’ And He did.”
Harris claims his life was saved after winding up at a homeless shelter called Graymore in upstate New York. He spent nearly two months at the facility while getting clean and was then offered a bed at St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation Center in Saranac Lake. He completed a 90-day program there, and his life was gradually heading back in the right direction.
“I learned a lot about myself, drugs, co-dependency, and denial. It was a cleansing experience,” Harris recalled. “After that, I was offered a spot at a halfway house in Syracuse and they got me a job doing landscaping and other odds and ends. Eventually, I got accepted into a government subsidy program and became a drug counselor.”
While getting clean, Harris also found a renewed interest in God. He began going to church regularly and a short time later was accepted to Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, where he earned his master’s. After doing missionary work in several Asian countries, Harris became a pastor at a church in New York. In 1996, Thistledown called and asked him to become the track’s chaplain.
“I spoke fluent Spanish, which helped, and they also wanted someone who had experience as a drug counselor,” Harris said. “I had zero experience working at a racetrack, but it sounded like a good challenge for me.”
For more than 12 years, Harris has been a pastor at Thistledown, where he conducts church services in the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association office on racetrack grounds. Just as any pastor does, he also conducts baptisms, funerals, and marriages.
But with more than 500 grooms, hotwalkers, blacksmiths, and other racetrack personnel at Thistledown—many of whom live on the grounds and have trouble making ends meet—Harris has numerous other responsibilities as well. He coordinates the medical programs for the employees, runs health fairs, manages recreational programs, helps out in the racetrack kitchen, and much more.
Thistledown director of operations David Elsworth has known Harris since he first became chaplain in 1996. He said the services Harris provides are truly unique.
“We’ve always had a chaplain here as far as I can remember, but most of them were retired ministers,” said Elsworth, who has been with Thistledown since the 1970s. “Reverend Harris provides a level of service that goes beyond just hosting prayer sessions. He provides counseling, language classes, organizes clothes donations, and much more. He really does a lot of things that are not often thought about, but are a big help to a work force that is fairly transient.
“It does not matter what your background, race, or religious affiliation is, Reverend Harris is always willing to help. I remember he once took up a cause for a Hispanic groom who had no family here and was in a little bit of trouble. He also was one of the first people to show up at the hospital when my sister had a health problem. He didn’t even know her.
“I don’t have any knowledge of other racetrack chaplains, but I can definitely say we are well served here.”
Harris, who is currently pursuing his PhD at Ashland University in Ohio, takes pride in helping people from different backgrounds.
“There are many different people from all walks of life that come to me,” said Harris, who at 6’2” and 230 pounds is not your average-looking chaplain. “I offer them counseling services, take them to the doctor, marry them—whatever it may be. My whole life is dedicated to doing God’s work.”