12/22/2004 1:00AM

Unsung workers help lift spirits on the backstretch


NEW ORLEANS - At 65, Ann Timphony still had the enthusiasm of a young woman as she talked about preparing a free Christmas dinner for the backstretch help at Fair Grounds. She stood behind the counter at the track kitchen, surveying the domain she has ruled through several different racetrack ownerships. Timphony was getting ready to dish out hundreds of meals Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"We've got 15 turkeys, candied yams, mixed vegetables, cranberry sauce, dressing, and bread pudding," she said

Timphony comes from a long line of racetrackers.

"I was born in a house, with a midwife attending, on Sauvage Street, just outside the front gate," she said. "My mother had a bar and restaurant over there. My dad had horses here. He was in the tomato business, bringing in tomatoes from Florida. My aunt also owned a bar and restaurant on the other side of the track on Belfort Street, the Belfort Inn. My family eventually sold the three pieces of land that we owned adjacent to the property to the track."

Timphony has been putting these holiday dinners together for 17 years with the help of Les Riggs, the backstretch chaplain, whose office is a trailer next to the track kitchen.

"He pays for all the meals," she explained. "Every Tuesday during the meet they have a service in here, they may get 115 people, and after the service they get a meal. I give him a bill at the end of the meet. I give him a break on the price."

Riggs, 58, pays for the food through donations to the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, South Louisiana division. He also provides toys for the workers' kids at the Dec. 25 dinner.

"It's a lot of fun," he said. "It's really important that we do this because Christmas is always a hard time for all the people on the backstretch. People want to be home with their families and they can't do it."

Riggs does what he can to cheer up the backstretch workers.

"I try to make the rounds every morning, go around to the barns," he said. "On the Tuesday before Christmas, after the service, we take the tram around the grounds from barn to barn and sing Christmas carols."

Though many of the workers are Catholics from south and central America, Riggs ministers to all faiths. "There's a Jewish man on the backside," said Riggs. "He asked me to conduct his wedding. I'm really looking forward to that."

Gifts for all

The most dramatic Christmas display on the Fair Grounds backstretch is trainer Bettye Gabriel's display at Barn 16. Right in the center of the barn a large, fully trimmed Christmas tree stands on a box covered with bright red wrapping paper. Tacked to the walls on both sides of the barn are 26 red fleece stockings, each bearing the name of one of the barn workers.