"I'm a social worker, counselor and pastor," says the 36-year-old native Texan, one of seven chaplains working 20 U.S. tracks for the interdenominational Racetrack Chaplaincy of America.
Boredom, betting and booze are the main problems of his flock, three-fourths of them Latinos cut adrift from home and Catholicism. Though ordained by the fundamentalist Assemblies of God, Vega says, "I'm not looking for converts clutching the Bible. I gauge success by the change in people's lives—whether they can control their drinking or gambling." Says Vega of the lure of the pari-mutuel window, "I don't blame them. They feel they know every muscle of the horses they work with. They have faith that they've groomed them well." Vega's advice: "Eat your betting money but don't bet your eating money."
With such access to trainers, hot-walkers and grooms, is Vega ever tempted by tips? "It gets more difficult every year," he admits, but never gambles himself. There should be separation, he says, between church and chance. When he preaches at local churches or talks to women's clubs, Vega says, "They often criticize me for being here—then ask for tips."
The bilingual bachelor is called Father, Padre and even Rabbi but generally is known as Izzy. The son of a hard-drinking father, he was the second of nine children and age 14 when his mother, pregnant with her 10th, died of a heart attack. ("My father never touched a bottle after that.")
After her death, Vega recalls, "people were so nice to us. I saw a new side of Christianity, people who practiced their faith." Izzy Vega's faith may be the only sure thing at the track.
When I'm asked what I'm doing here," says the Reverend Israel Vega, "I tell them I'm praying for the losing horses." His joke masks a serious mission as spiritual adviser to the 2,500 employees of Southern California's three race tracks, Santa Anita, Del Mar and Hollywood Park.