Apr 4, 2022
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NYRA Cares: Health care on the Belmont Park backstretch takes a community approach

by NYRA Press Office

Morning training is winding down just as it starts to get busy on a routine Thursday at the Northwell Health/Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) Healthcare Clinic on the Belmont Park backstretch.

First up are two annual physicals, one for a 56-year-old assistant trainer and the other for an exercise rider, a 20-year veteran of New York racetracks. Both men are run through a battery of tests and pronounced healthy, but not before the medical staff engage them in vigorous discussions about everything from their diets to diabetes prevention.

“Serving the backstretch is about a lot of things, from giving physicals to taking care of work-related injuries and being an advocate for healthy living,” said Dr. Margaret Donat, one of the four rotating Northwell physicians at the clinic. “But when you see somebody getting control of an issue like blood pressure or cholesterol, it’s important. I like to think we’re making a difference.”

Belmont Park’s 1,000-square-foot health care clinic goes back decades. But after the clinic closed for several months during the COVID-19 pandemic, it reopened last September under new management – this time, newly renovated, staffed with Northwell physicians, and fortified by what B.E.S.T. Executive Director Paul Ruchames described as a growing emphasis on healthy living and preventive care. 

“This is real community medicine,” said Ruchames. “The clinic is here to deal with the injuries, which it has always done. But what we’re seeing are more people coming in for physicals, and more people interested in learning how to adopt a healthier lifestyle to keep more serious things from happening later.”

He referred to several new offerings for backstretch workers, just as live racing returns to Belmont Park for its spring/summer meet – starting with free screenings for breast and colon cancer and a new mental health therapist. Launching this month are classes on ergonomics led by a Northwell physical therapist. Underway are discussions to convert an occupied parcel of land on the backstretch into a working farm for greens and other vegetables that would be distributed to backstretch workers.  

The clinic and new offerings are the latest evolution of Northwell’s growing relationship with the backstretch community. It dates to 2020 when Northwell began providing COVID-19 testing for backstretch workers at Belmont Park, and followed up in 2021 with COVID-19 vaccines. More than 90 percent of the hundreds of backstretch workers based at Belmont are vaccinated, which is well above the New York State average. 

The clinic, instantly recognizable by the oversized racing murals on its outside wall, offers patient hours three days a week – soon be to expanded to five – and referrals to specialty services as needed. There are two exam rooms and lab services for point-of-care testing. Some services, such as physicals, need to be reserved. Walk-ins are welcome for care related to work injuries, like horse bites and kicks.

“What’s exciting about working at Belmont Park is how much we’re learning about how to better serve the men and women there,” said Dr. Tochi Iroku-Malize, the clinic’s medical director and Northwell’s senior vice president and chair of family medicine. “We’re confident that we’ll continue to develop services that meet their needs.”

Spreading the word on the backstretch about the new service offerings and the enhanced clinic is crucial, said Ruchames. He credited word of mouth and fliers on the cancer screenings with helping – along with what he called a new spirit of cooperation and collaboration among B.E.S.T, NYRA and other non-profit organizations on the backstretch.

Ruchames referred to NYRA’s “Preparedness and Response Plan Committee,” which formed in 2020 in response to the onslaught of challenges of the COVID 19 pandemic. Comprised of key NYRA staff members and B.E.S.T., along with representatives of New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA), and the New York Race Track Chaplaincy, the committee used an effective team approach in dealing with urgent health issues, both big and small, by holding daily conference calls and responding as needed to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the backstretch community.  

“The committee’s decision-making process made us closer and more aware of one another’s roles at the racetrack,” said Ruchames. “I think that’s helped with the referrals  and more people encouraged to visit the clinic and find out what’s happening there.”

Exercise rider Kevin Soodoo said he was happy to be at the clinic for his annual physical. “This is an important place for those of us making our living on the track,” he said. “I’m confident that I’m getting good treatment.”

Getting to Know:  Paul Ruchames of B.E.S.T.

This month’s edition of Getting To Know visits with Paul Ruchames, Executive Director of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.). Ruchames leads an organization geared to meeting the health and social welfare needs of backstretch workers at the three NYRA tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course. Based at Belmont Park, B.E.S.T. provides on-site counseling and primary healthcare services, access to health insurance, and case management assistance.

B.E.S.T. is a finalist for the Long Island Imagine Award, which recognizes the best in innovation and leadership in the Long Island, New York non-profit sector. How did that come about?

Cerini & Associates, the sponsor of the program, contacted us to see if we might be interested in entering the competition for its annual “Social Impact Award,” which will be presented at a gala on April 26. What we discovered is that the Social Impact Award has become a major award on Long Island and in New York City area. So we entered – and of the 120-plus non-profits being considered for the award, we’ve made into the finals, with three other non-profits. We’re hopeful!

Win or not, does the competition help you get the word out about B.E.S.T.?

Sure. The Social Impact Award has really become one of the most prestigious awards in the non-profit industry; and at the gala, several hundred leaders of the private and non-profit sectors will be in attendance. There has already been much publicity about it, along with links to our website. Cerini & Associates have also produced a one-to-two-minute video about what we do, which we’ll be able to use for promotion. Overall, it’s been a really positive experience already. And if we’re fortunate to win the award, we’ll earn a $5,000 donation.

So let’s say you do win. How would that further help your mission?

It would certainly help to get the word out beyond the track and into the community. 

And it would help give us more prestige in the non-profit area – and coming from the horse racing industry, competition is what it’s all about. We’re in our own race – in the homestretch, and I believe in the lead!

What else is new or current at B.E.S.T. that people should know about?

A number of things. We’re in the midst of Narcan training, so backstretch people, NYRA staff and other working at the track can be enabled to reverse any opiate overdoses. Working with Northwell Health, we’re kicking off training for ergonomics, which is how to use your body for work and to prevent chronic pain. And with Northwell, we’ll be starting anther program to present public health education classes on a revolving series of topics. 

For tax season, we’re partnering with the VITA program at the IRS to help workers prepare their taxes for free. And we’re collaborating with the New York advocacy group, LatinoJustice, to develop a quarterly free legal clinic for backstretch workers.

We’re about to kick off a virtual women’s group, and already have 29 women wanting to enroll. Saratoga is on the way – and our talented staff, we’ll be busy there providing food and clothing as well as assistance with enrolling in health insurance and dental care, mental health counseling and more. Year-round, backstretch workers so look forward to Saratoga because of B.E.S.T.’s many programs and our dedicated staff and volunteers.  

Do all of these programs give you a sense of momentum with the approach of New York racing’s busy season – the Belmont spring-summer and Saratoga meets?

Yes. We feel these programs are great preparation because as racing gets busy, we get an influx of backstretch workers. At Belmont, we’ll be initiating a new and improved life insurance program – and working with our wonderful partners, Northwell Health, NYRA and NYTHA (New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association), starting a mini-farm project which, soon, we hope, will provide organic and healthy food for the backstretch. And as for Saratoga, our program is heading to the starting gate – and ready to burst out once the track reopens! 

For more on B.E.ST., go to https://www.bestbackstretch.org/. For more information on the Long Island Imagine Awards, go to https://imagineawardsli.com/finalist/

In the community...

The New York Race Track Chaplaincy (NYRTCA) will honor New York Racing Association television analyst and handicapper Andy Serling for his generous and continued devotion to the backstretch community at its 15th annual fund-raising brunch to be held on August 17, 2022, at Saratoga National Golf Club in Saratoga Springs, NY.

"At every opportunity, Andy goes out of his way to recognize and advocate for the members of the backstretch community and he certainly deserves this honor," said Humberto Chavez, the lead chaplain and executive director for the NY Chaplaincy.

The NYRTCA ministers to the heart and soul of the backstretch community with children’s enrichment, social service, recreational, and educational programs, as well as non-denominational religious services.

Tickets and sponsorships are available at this link. 

The NYRTCA's Charity Basketball Game returns on Thursday, August 4, at the Saratoga Rec Center. The 13th edition of the Charity Basketball Game will see the jockeys renew their sporting rivalry with the horsemen to benefit the important programs of the NYRTCA.

Tickets and sponsorships are available at this link.

A helping hand…

We Are NY Horse Racing - Send a message in support of our industry

NYRA is a founding member of the We Are NY Horse Racing coalition, a diverse group of small businesses, labor unions, non-profits, trade organizations, and community groups working to advocate on behalf of the 19,000 women and men who are working in and around the sport. Since its initial launch in September, We Are NY Horse Racing has rapidly grown to now include nearly 50 member organizations.

Recently, the coalition launched a tool that allows the racing community to engage with decision makers in Albany in a quick and efficient way. By completing the form linked to below, you can support the sport of horse racing by emphasizing its importance to the New York State economy. 

Please complete the required fields at www.nyhorseracing.com/take-action 

In addition, We Are NY Horse Racing has released its first television ad to further communicate the benefits of the sport and the broader industry. Please take a moment to view the ad here and share on social media We Are NY Horse Racing – The Shape of New York - YouTube

About NYRA Cares

The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA), which holds the exclusive franchise to conduct thoroughbred racing at Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course, sponsors its NYRA Cares initiative to support the charitable endeavors of industry-related non-profits, service providers and community groups.

In New York, NYRA has long provided sustaining financial contributions to deepen the impact of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST), the Racetrack Chaplaincy of New York and the Belmont Child Care Association (BCCA). 

NYRA Cares partners with national organizations such as the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the American Red Cross, Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Program among others. 

The Belmont Stakes Racing Festival is marked by a number of special events and community partnerships sponsored and supported by NYRA. These include the annual Belmont/Elmont Parade, the jockey visit to the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island and the Belmont Stakes Blue Ribbon Run for Prostate Cancer. 

At historic Saratoga Race Course, NYRA Cares’ signature initiative is the Community Outreach Booth, which each season highlights a total of 40 local and industry non-profit organizations by providing them with a unique platform to share information about their work and fundraising initiatives. One non-profit per day of the summer racing season receives the exclusive opportunity to interact with the thousands of guests who visit Saratoga Race Course. The Community Partner of the Day is also featured in the Post Parade racing program and on televisions throughout the venue. 

To learn more about NYRA Cares, visit: https://www.nyrainc.com/community.

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