“The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Deuteronomy 31:8

Although most do not realize it, on the backside of a racehorse track there is a community of people that work and even live at the track. This community is made up of people that come from all walks of life but are brought together because of their love of horses and a passion for the sport. The main purpose of their job is to care for the horses with incredible devotion and love so the horses can run their best race. But who will care for the people in this unique community? Who will lift them up with compassion in a time of need, and also be their biggest supporter in times of happiness? Who is the spiritual backbone of this community? The answer may surprise you – it’s the track chaplain.

The track chaplain is so much more than a man or woman of God. They are friends, advocates, educators, and even event coordinators. They provide the community someone to not only lead worship services, but also a compassionate person who listens to their concerns without judgment, and who will do anything within their power to help. The chaplains are supported by the tracks and the horsemen’s groups because they realize how vital a chaplain’s role is in maintaining the well- being of the many people who make up a track’s community. We would like to introduce you to two of Pennsylvania’s Track chaplains: Joe DiDonato, chaplain at The Meadows Racetrack in Washington County, and Keith Hunter, chaplain at Penn National Race Course in Dauphin County. 

Pastor Joe DiDonato and his wife Mary

Pastor Joe DiDonato has served as the chaplain at The Meadows Racetrack for almost 27 years. His role is to provide ministry to the entire track community – meeting the many spiritual, emotional, physical, monetary, and social needs that come his way. “Horsemen work seven days a week and put in long hours. There is not much time to do many other things, such as get connected to a local church. It is a unique community, and we minister to the richest of the rich and poorest of the poor. Owners who have good-paying jobs, to grooms, or caretakers who are transient and need assistance in many different ways. However, we are all human and hurt the same way no matter what our social status may be. We are there to help folks through the tough times and celebrate with them during times of celebration.  Everything we do is open to everyone. No matter what is taking place in someone’s life, as Roger Huston would say, I want to ‘Be There’!”

The responsibilities of a chaplain aren’t always easy, Joe expressed, “Things are toughest when you sit next to someone who has become a good friend and spend the final hours of their life with them and family members.  When you are called to someone’s home following an unexpected death or to the scene of an accident. I have followed many Life Flight choppers to Pittsburgh Hospitals over the years, driving family members with me. It is also tough when young people succumb to addiction and you have to support the family and eulogize one of your kids. Helping and supporting others through various addictions is difficult, but it is awesome when someone overcomes!

Despite some of the challenges, Pastor Joe considers it an honor to serve as chaplain at The Meadows. He has touched many lives over the years in so many positive ways.  From activities for the children whose parents work at the track to parties for the families at Easter, Christmas, and Halloween. His dedication and love to the community he serves are evident when he says, “I have always said that I would rather be called “Friend” than Pastor or Reverend anytime. I believe that is the greatest compliment one person can give to another.” It is pretty plain to see that Pastor Joe DiDonato is passionate about ministering, being a spiritual leader, and, most of all – a friend.

Chaplain Keith Hunter

Approximately three hours east of The Meadows, in Grantville, Chaplain Keith Hunter has served the community at Penn National Race Course for the past four years. However, he brings years of experience as a former pastor and as a cross-cultural missionary.  A large part of ministering to the community is building relationships based on trust. Chaplain Hunter realizes this requires more than weekly services and prayer meetings because while these things are important in any spiritual relationship, ministering to a community is much more than that.

Daily walks with workers through the barn, encouragement through the most difficult of times, and providing assistance to the community by offering a food pantry, clothing bank, and transportation assistance for emergencies, appointments. When asked why it is important to have chaplains available at the racetrack, he states “We seek to minister to the spiritual, emotional, physical, social and educational needs of those involved in the horse racing industry.” He continues, “Chaplains provide hope and encouragement to point people to the God who created us and desires each of us to have a meaningful relationship of faith with Him.”

As a leader, building relationships also means allowing yourself to be vulnerable and willing to take on the pain of others in their darkest times. Chaplain Hunter says the harder part of his job is “seeing the heartache of people living in fractured relationships, loneliness, and addictions.

The ministry at Penn National works closely with local churches to supplement the needs of the racetrack community. Chaplain Hunter advises, “We are an evangelical, inter-denominational ministry as a part of the RTCA (Race Track Chaplaincy of America), but partner with a variety of Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in the area.” Chaplain Hunter is a vital part of the Penn National community, and being able to offer this type of service at a racetrack is a blessing for those around him.

Both Pastor DiDonato and Chaplain Hunter are being faced with the current pandemic that has affected people worldwide, and the uncertainty that comes with it. As Christian leaders, people are looking to them for guidance in a world that feels chaotic and scary. So many are struggling mentally, spiritually, and physically.  Whether being directly affected by this virus known as “Co-Vid 19”, struggling economically, worrying about what comes next, or all of the above, we are all looking for guidance. Pastor DiDonato and Chaplain Hunter both have messages of hope they would like to share with readers during this difficult time.

If we have learned anything through our current hardships it is that we actually have no control over anything. At any moment on any given day, our lives could change forever in ways we could have never imagined. We are very vulnerable. We need to keep in prayer those infected by the virus, their family members, our healthcare workers, first responders, those in our local areas, our individual states, our nation, and the world. When I say “family members” that includes all of our horsemen, women, and horses. We need to pray for a vaccine or medications that work towards destroying this virus. Of course, we need to especially pray for those who have experienced the death of a loved one. What we need to do during this time and with Easter almost here, is look to the one one who defeated death and came back from the grave. Speaking of friends, we need to turn to the one who wants to be our best friend, Jesus. On that first Easter morning, Jesus rose from the grave. A huge stone was rolled away and He rose. When he walked this earth before his death Jesus stood in front of the spot where a man who died named Lazarus was buried. He gave the command to Take away or Roll away the stone. When the stone was removed, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus come forth.” It was then that the one who was dead, Lazarus, came out of that grave alive. The good news I have to share with you is that Jesus is still in the business of rolling away stones. So many feel dead and buried in the midst of our current crisis. However, if we continue in prayer and look to Jesus, He will roll that huge stone away. Even when we do eventually get back to our normal lifestyles, we will need Jesus to guide and direct us. The Bible calls death our final enemy in life. When we allow Jesus to come into our lives and trust him as The Savior who died for us that first Good Friday and The Lord whom we look to and follow each day, we will have the peace, comfort, and love to face anything in life. This includes that final enemy death, as we will, like Jesus, bypass the grave and life forever with Him in the glory of heaven. -Pastor DiDonato, The Meadows Racetrack


During the world’s new reality with the current pandemic, people are struggling with the fear of the unknown; health, social distancing, and economic hardships. What positive message would you like to share during Easter?  With many, many questions on the minds and hearts of people from all walks of life and much uncertainty across the generations and geographical regions…I believe there are positive things happening. One musical artist (whose name & exact words I forget) said something to the effect that “this is a time for slowing down and reflecting about what is important in life.” The reality revealed in the Bible is that all of creation is out of alignment with the Creator – relationships with God, with each other, and with nature (Genesis chapter 3). The sobering news is that we have all been infected by a lethal disease. But the hope-filled good news is that God has graciously & lovingly provided a cure – one embodied in his Son, Jesus Christ (John chapter 1). Anyone who aligns himself with this giver of hope through surrender to his control is radically changed (Romans chapter 10:9-13). The ultimate cure for the disease of sin is a Savior who has died and rose again in our place so that we might have life – life everlasting. When we fully put our trust in Him as the ultimate solution we are granted new life – eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes (fully trusts) in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Perhaps more than ever this Easter is the time to reflect on what is most important in life and respond to God’s amazing offer of restoration. The cure awaits! Chaplain Hunter, Penn National Race Course


If you would like to a donation to either of these programs 

Checks made payable to: CHHA-The Meadows
Mailed to: CHHA-The Meadows, PO Box 499, Meadows Lands, PA 15347

Checks made payable to: CPRTCA
Mailed to: RTCA Central Penn Division, PO Box 88, Grantville, PA 17078

Article By: Ashley Eisenbeil & Mary Lark
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