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Thursday, March 8, 2012
NY racing knows B.E.S.T.

By Bob Ehalt

Paul Ruchames has been involved in social work for nearly three decades, but he says it’s been the last two years that have been the most rewarding for him.

Since taking over as the executive director of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) in March of 2010, Ruchames has been at the helm of an integral behind-the-scenes program that has helped to change lives on the backstretch of New York’s three racetracks. On a daily basis, the non-profit organization extends a helping hand to racetrack workers, providing them with essential services and goods such as free heath care and life insurance, drug counseling and mental health care as well as food and clothing.

“This is the most meaningful endeavor I’ve been involved in,” Ruchames said. “We’re helping people live better lives and there’s such a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes from that as well as working with such an incredibly dedicated staff and a team of volunteers. There are so many generous people out there willing to help others.”

Ruchames says B.E.S.T. has a fulltime staff of about 15 and nearly 150 volunteers who work tirelessly on behalf of nearly 2,000 backstretch workers at Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga. Supported by an annual budget of $2.2 million, which comes mostly from the New York Racing Association and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, B.E.S.T. operates an on-track clinic throughout the year at Cottage 28B on the Belmont Park backstretch, which is staffed by a fulltime physician, and services workers at Saratoga for seven months out of the year.

The clinic treats roughly 120 patients per month and approximately 20 more are taking advantage of the group’s drug and alcoholic counseling programs. For many of those workers, a large number of whom are immigrants, treatment by Dr. Frederic Cogan at the B.E.S.T. clinic will serve as their first visit to a doctor in years -- if not ever.

“So many of these workers come from poor rural areas that they’re never seen a doctor before,” says Ruchames, who has played a lead role in revitalizing B.E.S.T., which was plagued by cash flow troubles prior to his arrival. “And they are such hard-working people that even if they get hurt they will not stop for treatment; they just keep working. Through our program, we’ve been able to provide some help for these people and also get them vaccinations to keep them healthy.”

The many success stories arising out of the work by B.E.S.T. has caught the eye of several New York businesses, allowing the program to grow at a dramatic rate the last two years. Macy’s, for example, recently provided B.E.S.T. with a $10,000 grant for hepatitis testing.

Ruchames also notes a computer lab was recently opened at Saratoga and plans are in the works to introduce one at Belmont Park.

“The computers and components like Skype are great for workers who are disconnected from their families,” Ruchames says. “When workers can contact their families it helps to alleviate the emptiness that often leads to drug or alcohol use. As much [as] we provide treatment to those who need it, we are also focused on trying to eliminate the root cause of those problems.”

Clearly, a large and growing community of needy backstretch workers have guardian angels looking over them. And through all of that care and concern, something quite special has been taking place away from the bright spotlight of the circular dirt surfaces that have made New York racing so famous. Some dedicated individuals have taken the B.E.S.T. and made it better.

(Note: Anyone interested in supporting B.E.S.T. can reach Ruchames by email at paul@bestbackstretch.com or by phone at (516) 488-3434, ext. 103)