The late Lou Rowan, a California owner and breeder and one of the founding directors of the Oak Tree Racing Association, gave much of his time helping racetrack employees whose lives were spiraling out of control due to drug and alcohol problems. A recovering alcoholic who understood the disease of addiction, Rowan helped more than a few people learn how to deal with their problems. But the needs at the track were greater than any one man could resolve, so in 1984 Rowan convinced the Oak Tree board to put a trailer in the stable area where 12-step meetings could be held to help alcoholics and addicts begin the process of recovery.
That was how the Winners Foundation was formed. Funded originally by Oak Tree but now supported by all of California’s racing associations (and individual donors), the organization has a presence at every track in the Golden State, helping front and backside employees troubled by alcohol, drugs, or gambling problems, as well as mental illnesses such as depression. The Winners Foundation also assists with domestic abuse issues and divorce that often result from the various types of addiction. Another program it offers trainers is drug-testing of potential employees before they are hired.
There is an annual caseload of over 225 patients, according to Bob Fletcher, executive director of the Winners Foundation for the last seven years. Fletcher, a longtime employee on the front side of California’s tracks, referred several fellow workers to the program even while developing his own problems with alcohol and drugs. In 1991, he went to the Winners Foundation for help, and has been clean and sober ever since.
When former executive director Don Murray retired in 2003 after more than a dozen years with the organization, the board asked Fletcher if he could take over, and he was happy to do so. Fletcher isn’t the only Winners Foundation staffer in recovery. Four of the organization’s five employees have overcome their own problems with drugs or alcohol, which gives them greater understanding in helping those currently in need.
Many employees are referred to the Winners Foundation by California Horse Racing Board stewards or track management. They are given an assessment to determine the severity of their problem by Fletcher or one of the case managers (there are two at the Northern California tracks and one in Southern California who works with Fletcher). Many are sent to detoxification centers and in-patient programs, some for as long as three months. Front side employees, many of them labor union members, are usually covered by their health insurance, but Winners Foundation foots the bill for most of the backstretch workers licensed with the CHRB. The cost of those programs can be significant, and have not been immune from the escalation in health care prices.
When those workers are released from the in-patient programs, Winners Foundation provides a variety of fellowship meetings so they can continue in their recovery. The offices expanded from that original trailer and are now large enough to host several types of 12-step meetings, day and night, seven days a week. “We have meetings for Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, in both English and Spanish, along with Al-Anon (for the families of alcoholics/addicts), meetings of adult children of alcoholics, and even Bible study one night as week,” Fletcher said. “There is something going on every afternoon and night.”
Fletcher said one of the strengths of the Winners Foundation throughout its history has been a strong and active board of directors. Gino Roncelli, a horse owner and local businessman, is the only remaining member of the original board put together by Rowan. He has served as president for nearly 20 years. Joe Harper, chief executive of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, is board chairman. One of the newest board members is Mary Forney, who works for the Thoroughbred Owners of California.
“It’s one of my beliefs that it’s just as important to take care of the people as it is to take care of the animals,” said Forney. “Animal rights issues get a lot of headlines, but the people who care for the animals often get ignored. If you want to take care of the animals you also want to provide a clean work force to handle them. It’s an advantage for the owners to have clean and sober stable help handle their investments.”
“The heartening thing is to see these men and women after they recover,” said Roncelli, “and see their families back together. When you get caught up in drugs and alcohol addiction, you think your life is about over. This program gives you a whole new life to look forward to. Almost everywhere you look around the racetrack, there’s someone who has been helped.”
Among the high-profile success stories of the Winners Foundation are jockeys Garrett Gomez and David Flores, but there are many lesser-known individuals, from pari-mutuel clerks to security personnel to grooms who have gotten their lives back on track through the program.
Fletcher had some big shoes to fill when he took over for Murray, but Roncelli said the program didn’t miss a beat. “Bob is such a great guy,” Roncelli said. “He has empathy for people in that place, because he remembers being there.”