Today's Good News: B.E.S.T. Supporting NYRA's Backstretch Community

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Sarah Andrew

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The importance of the Backstretch Employee Service Team of New York (B.E.S.T.) is more pronounced than ever with live racing at Aqueduct Racetrack suspended until further notice due to changing circumstances in the racing community relative to the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Led by Executive Director Paul Ruchames from Cottage 28B on the Belmont Park backstretch, B.E.S.T.'s staff of 15 fulltime workers and a lengthy list of volunteers have worked diligently throughout the year to support the backstretch workers who care for the horses stabled at Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course.

“Without our backstretch workers, racing could not happen. They are essential to the sport of horse racing,” said Ruchames. “Waking up at 3 a.m., they care daily for the horses through all types of weather and through difficult hours. It's a job that takes a physical toll, but they work with a great compassion for the animal.”

B.E.S.T. operates on an annual budget in excess of $2.2 million which is funded mainly by the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA), along with public donations and grants from private foundations.

The non-profit organization is home to the B.E.S.T. Health Center, located on the Belmont backstretch, and is tasked with providing backstretch workers free health care, life insurance, drug and mental health counseling, as well as food and clothing.

“We've stopped seeing people in our office as much as possible to stay in line with social distancing,” said Ruchames. “Instead of having group counseling or individual sessions in person, we are now having phone counseling in its place.

“If you're feeling sick, we ask workers to call us,” added Ruchames. “And we encourage everyone to follow the basic precautions of handwashing for at least 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer if you have it and practice social distancing. If you have a family member who has tested positive to let us know and self-quarantine.”

B.E.S.T. is currently directing backstretch workers feeling symptoms of the coronavirus, or in need of other care, to contact the Elmont Health Center, a Federally Qualified Health Center, located across the street from Gate 5 at 161 Hempstead Turnpike. Backstretch workers should call the Elmont Health Center [516-571-8200] in advance before heading to the clinic.

Ruchames said the health care needs of the community will only increase over the coming months and he is hoping to raise money to build a negative pressure room at both the Belmont and Saratoga clinics. A negative pressure isolation room is commonly used for patients with airborne infections and works by re-circulating air, through a filter, outside of the clinic.

The cost of building a negative pressure room at the B.E.S.T. Health Center at Belmont is estimated at $12,000.

“Building a negative pressure room at our clinic at Belmont is vital to our ability to operate and manage the care of the extensive backstretch community,” said Ruchames. “It will be important to have this type of room to isolate patients that come in with a cough and know that they're not spreading it. It's important not only now with the pandemic, but for any issues that may come up in the future. It's a critical cog in being able to treat this epidemic and future ones.”

Donations would also go a long way towards expanding the staff and clinic hours available to tend to the New York backstretch community.

“Clearly, for the next year, a lot more staff will be needed to care for the community as we continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic,” said Ruchames.

Ruchames is a key member of NYRA's Preparedness and Response Plan Committee, comprised of NYRA staff members as well as representatives from NYTHA and the New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America (NYRTCA). The committee has closely assessed developments regarding the coronavirus for the past several weeks to develop protocols following the most up-to-date health guidance established by the New York State Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to monitor and manage both the Aqueduct and Belmont properties.

During this time of uncertainty, Ruchames said B.E.S.T. is working together with all industry partners to better the social and physical welfare of backstretch employees.

“We must all work together to care for each other and help stem the spread of the coronavirus,” said Ruchames.

For more information about B.E.S.T. and to learn about volunteer or donation options, please visit https://www.bestbackstretch.org/donate.

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