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Jockeying for Faith

Horse racetrack chaplain ministers to a gravely injured rider.

Michael Bingaman’s cellphone rang in his office at Retama Park, a horse track in San Antonio. An ambulance had been dispatched to take a jockey injured in a track accident to University Hospital.

Horseracing is a dangerous sport. Injuries are common; most are treated at a nearby hospital. But this injury on Sept. 2, 2001, required treatment at a trauma unit, indicating the rider had sustained grave injuries.

Bingaman, 59, Retama Park’s endorsed U.S. Missions Assemblies of God chaplain, prepared to leave for the hospital when a track employee arrived in the office with more information. Desiree Hamilton Clepper had been jockeying a thoroughbred gelding named Pawns and Kings when the horse collapsed at full speed on the track, dead. Clepper flew off the horse onto the ground; the horse somersaulted and landed in a heap on Clepper’s head.

Bingaman knew the injured jockey. Clepper had attended the Bible study and church services he held at the track. As chaplain, Bingaman advocates for a population that’s often forgotten, ignored, or discounted, sometimes without relatives around. He provides a gospel witness in the year-round community of those who live on the track grounds.

The employees who witnessed the accident described blood pouring from Clepper’s ears and nose. It formed a puddle on the ground around her, leaving her alive, but just barely.

Bingaman raced to the hospital, where a doctor told him that Clepper wouldn’t survive. Her skull had cracked across the back, from temple to temple. It fell to Bingaman to deliver the news to Clepper’s mother, Laurie Prest, in Houston. The doctor told Bingaman that Prest should come immediately and be prepared for her daughter’s death.

But Bingaman pressed the physician, wanting to know Clepper’s odds for survival.

“I've been in the job for many years, and I have learned that everyone has a number, no matter how small,” Bingaman says.

Fifty percent, the doctor told him.

That heartened Bingaman, who responded, "That's great! Race trackers will bet on 2 to 1 odds all day!"

Physicians thought if Clepper did survive, she would be in a persistent vegetative state. The chaplain had a more hopeful view.

“I believed that God wasn’t going to take her this far just to drop her,” Bingaman says.

In retrospect, Clepper credits the chaplain’s optimism for inspiring hope and faith in her family members.

“No matter what the doctors said, he never believed this would lead to death,” Clepper says. “It led Mom to a stronger belief.”

Indeed, Clepper seemed to be healing from a horrific injury. But within days, that faith was severely tested. Clepper’s eyes began to bulge. Her vision blurred. She heard what sounded “like an ocean” in her head. Hospital tests discovered Clepper’s carotid artery had ruptured because of the swelling of her brain. Blood filled her eye sockets.

While initially, doctors gave her a 50/50 chance, this time they expressed condolences to Clepper’s mom. They could do nothing to fix this catastrophic injury. They advised to prepare for imminent death.

Instead, Prest hired an ambulance to transfer her daughter to a Houston hospital. There, Clepper underwent a 13-hour surgery that entailed placing titanium stents and coils on the ruptured carotid artery. Such a procedure never had been performed before on a traumatic head injury, Clepper says.

Then Clepper underwent recovery and rehabilitation. Meanwhile, Bingaman traveled back and forth between San Antonio and Houston.

“He was praying with my parents, holding my hand,” Clepper says. “He was steadfast, helping people out.”

After eight weeks in the hospital, Clepper was discharged. Eventually, she returned to work as a jockey and won a race before retiring from the sport. Seven years after her accident, Bingaman performed her wedding ceremony.

Today, Clepper, 35, teaches first-year English at a Houston-area high school. She has written a book about her experiences, Journey of the Ride, which recounts Bingaman’s role in her miraculous recovery.

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.