The BEST of the Backstretch

“Saratoga is a healing community,” said Paul Ruchames recently, “and you can accomplish a lot with a healing community.”

Ruchames is the recently appointed executive director of Backstretch Employees Service Team (BEST); he comes to the position from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in the Bronx, where he served as director of outpatient services and deputy director for the division of substance abuse.

A licensed clinical social worker with more than 30 years of experience, Ruchames took on the daunting task of righting a ship that over the last few years had foundered through lack of leadership and lack of funds.  He oversees the BEST staff and coordinates a variety of services for the backstretch workers, including health benefits, counseling services, and primary care clinics at Belmont and Saratoga.

“The Saratoga clinic is open from April to November, to serve the workers who are here when the Oklahoma is open, before and after the Saratoga meet. During the meet, the clinics are open six days a week; the hours outside the meet depend on the population and on our funding,” he explained.

BEST also provides what Ruchames called “beyond the call of duty” work.  He cited as an example a backstretch worker who recently required emergency surgery.  “We work,” said Ruchames, “with local health care providers to provide care at a cost that workers can afford.”  He characterized as “amazing” the contributions from a variety of local providers.

Last Monday, the second race was named in honor of the BEST volunteers who work on behalf of the backstretch workers all year long. “The Saratoga volunteers are remarkable,” said Ruchames. “They are energizing and inspiring.”  As part of the volunteer appreciation event, a photo of the volunteers was featured in Monday’s program.

Next Monday, closing day, the third race will be named in honor of Tom Durkin’s Third Race Call. Each day through the meet, six fans can join Durkin in the announcer’s booth for the third race; the $100 charged for the event is donated to BEST.  Durkin is a long-time BEST board member.

“At Saratoga,” Ruchames said, “the workers feel the support that they get.” Through the summer, volunteers coordinated nightly events on the backstretch:  bingo games, movies, meals.  The Sunday night meals, which are catered by Panza’s and underwritten by John Hendrickson and Marylou Whitney, were recently featured in the dining section of the New York Times.

According to Ruchames, the bingo nights have been particularly well attended.  Durkin calls numbers and letters in Spanish and English for the largely Latino audience.

Ruchames’ background in the field of substance abuse suits him well for his work at BEST.  “Drug and alcohol abuse is still a major problem on the backstretch,” he maintains, “and it’s a major part of other medical issues. Research shows that 40% of all hospitalizations in the United States are strongly related to or caused by substance abuse issues. On the backstretch, you could probably double that.”

Ruchames points to a number of ways that NYRA and the backstretch are attending to substance abuse issues.  One is a newly instituted breathalyzer policy at the NYRA tracks.

“It’s an issue of safety for everyone,” points out Ruchames. “It’s not good for anyone to have intoxicated people around expensive animals.”

Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have been added to the menu of treatment options at Saratoga; workers can also participate in group and individual counseling.

Ruchames characterizes BEST’s approach as educational and sensitive, not punitive.  “Patients expect to get clobbered by us when they first come in. We’ve instituted a behavioristic approach, and research shows that it really works.

“We reward specific, healthy behaviors, such as having a negative drug test or showing up to a counseling meeting. It has a pretty big impact.”

While Ruchames can point to a number of successful endeavors at Saratoga, the situation here is not always ideal for the backstretch workers.  “They don’t always feel welcome in Saratoga,” he said. “When they’re out downtown, they get looks and comments about immigration and crime.

“Over the next year, we want to find ways to get them more integrated into the community.  Currently, we provide vans to transport the workers around Saratoga. We’re developing a connecting with Horsin’ Around Trolley and working with CDTA on ways to transport the backstretch workers around town.”

Ruchames’ vision for BEST’s work goes beyond taking care of the workers while they’re on the backstretch. “Many people choose to do this work despite the low pay and the lack of upward mobility,” he observed. “It’s wearying work, and it should be a stepping off point, a place to start until they get established.”  He points to one worker who recently received a full scholarship to a local college. “That’s what this job should be used for: a way to prepare the backstretch workers to join America, not to be stuck in a country within a country.”

While ambitious and enthusiastic about the work, Ruchames is also realistic. “We’re on the edge of a crisis with health insurance,” he remarked.  BEST’s current plan will not be acceptable when health care reform takes effect next year, and it’s possible that whatever policies will be acceptable will  be beyond BEST’s means. “There’s no way,” said Ruchames, “to afford what will be acceptable.” He’s currently investigating options and seeking government counsel on how best to proceed to continue to insure the backstretch workers.

This Sunday will be the final dinner of the Saratoga meeting; Hattie’s is coordinating contributions from a variety of local restaurants, including Pennell’s, the Wishing Well, Panza’s, Seven Horse Tavern, Irish Times, Cantina, Leon’s Mexican Restaurant, Putnam Market, and the Bread Basket. Dehn’s, the Posie Peddler, AA Provisions, and Sahr’s Poultry are also contributing.

According to Ruchames, when Hendrickson and Whitney began the Sunday dinners, their mission was “to be welcome, not charitable.” The evenings are well-attended and popular with both backstretch workers and with volunteers.

Next week, Ruchames and some of his staff will head back to Belmont Park and BEST’s home office. He has found his first summer at Saratoga both challenging and rewarding, but his comments reveal that he is heartened by the community’s engagement and spirit of volunteerism.

“People feed off the energy of the backstretch workers,” he observed. “I think that what we’re achieving is remarkable.”

2 thoughts on “The BEST of the Backstretch

  1. Teresa thank for the wonder glimpse at the ‘behind the scenes’ at the race track. It put things into perspective for me and I’m sure for many other readers!

  2. Thanks, Kevin. The folks who work on the backstretch can’t get enough recognition, and it’s good to see people supporting them, their work, and their health.

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