OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Longtime New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) employees Nick Garafola and Veronica Gallardo have worked valiantly for the racing community amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the dormitories located on the Belmont Park backstretch.
Garafola and Gallardo have a combined 37 years of experience at NYRA. On Belmont’s vast backstretch, they’re responsible for the housing and well-being of a small city: anywhere from 450 to 600 backstretch workers living in approximately 500 rooms among 69 cottages.
On March 19, 2020, NYRA voluntarily suspended live racing at Aqueduct Racetrack due to changing circumstances in the racing community relative to COVID-19 pandemic. Although racing was stopped, the essential work of caring for the more than 1,300 horses stabled at Belmont continued.
“That’s when you ask yourself, ‘how can I make a difference?’” said Garafola, who is NYRA’s Dormitory Supervisor.
Nearly a year later, Garafola and Gallardo, NYRA’s Assistant Dormitory Supervisor, are making a difference. They’re NYRA’s “first responders before the first responders,” as Garafola put it – as part of an expansive Belmont backstretch team responding to protocols and processes put in place to ensure the health and safety of the community, alerting medical professionals as needed and even serving as translators for a diverse group of backstretch workers.
“Nick and Veronica have played an important role in the day-to-day challenge of maintaining a safe working environment on the backstretch,” said Glen Kozak, NYRA’s Senior Vice President, Operations and Capital Projects. “They’ve done so with hard work and a lot of empathy, by adapting when needed and by following a strict set of protocols. This pandemic has created some unsung heroes in our business. They’re at the top of list.”
Gallardo and Garafola routinely go above and beyond the call of duty for their friends and extended family on the Belmont backstretch.
“If a resident goes into quarantine, we stay in touch,” said Gallardo. “Sometimes, there’s not much to say. We just want them to know we’re thinking of them and that we care.”
Garafola and Gallardo credit NYRA’s Preparedness and Response Plan Committee, comprised of key NYRA staff members as well as representatives of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA), the New York Chapter of the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America (NYRTCA), the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.), the Belmont Child Care Association (BCCA) and Premise Health – for taking an effective team approach to health issues, both big and small.
The committee has pitched in as needed, often on the fly. Last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, NYTHA received a shipment of several thousand face masks – at a period of time when masks could be hard to come by – and people from the committee groups made sure everyone on the backstretch received a mask and understood the importance of wearing one.
The team approach continues to pay off as representatives of NYRA, NYTHA, NYRTCA, B.E.S.T, and the BCCA have set up food banks, provided up-to-date communications on health care and distributed gift cards for groceries for the hundreds of Belmont-based backstretch workers and their families. Many of the tasks, too numerous to name, were performed essentially “on call” at all hours – and almost always involving Garafola and Gallardo.
“What Veronica and Nick do every single day is huge,” said Nick Caras, the NYRTCA’s Programs Director. “The hours don’t seem to matter to them. They just ‘do,’ helping us work together to make the backstretch safer for all.”
Five furlongs with…Pat Boyle, Executive Director of Gateway Youth Outreach
NYRA partners with Gateway Youth Outreach Inc. (GYO) each year to kick off the Belmont States Racing Festival on Community Day at Belmont Park. The GYO provides counselling, educational and recreational programs to the community that surrounds Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.
NYRA Cares reached out to Pat Boyle, the GYO Executive Director. Learn more about Gateway Youth Outreach at https://gatewayyouthoutreach.weebly.com.
What is Gateway Youth’s primary purpose and how does it serve the community?
“Our mission to serve young people between the ages of 0 and 21 and their families. Our main focus is counseling, which we provide for free, and we also provide after- school programing. Before COVID, we had 800 students in our programs every day. We do job development programs as well. We teach resume-writing and communication skills. Our goal is to try to address needs in the community.
“When I first got here, the program started out with 15 children in after-school programs. We didn’t get a lot more money or anything else, we just utilized the resources we have in a better way to serve the community.”
How important is it to have a dedicated team to fulfill the organization’s mission?
“We hire high school and college-age young people from the neighborhoods to supervise our after-school programs, so we’re one of the largest employers in Elmont.
“Our programs are our people. We only have six full-time staff, the rest are all part-time, but it’s a much better job than going out and flipping burgers somewhere. We actually teach them skills that they can use in their life going forwards.”
How has the COVID-19 situation impacted the organization’s ability to provide services and counseling to still reach its youth-development goals?
“We’ve taken the after-school program and turned it into a virtual program, where we have one-on-one homework assistance and different types of training programs. The problem of course is that the numbers have gone down drastically; from that 800 a day to about 285 now. The attention the children are given now is one-to-one, where it used to be one counselor for every 10 children.
“On Fridays, we have about 60-70 kids on a Zoom call and play different games, and that has been extremely successful and lauded by the parents that their children can see their friends and interact and have some play time that they don’t usually get around the house.
“There’s also been a real shortage of food in these families because parents have lost jobs and even families that were doing OK for themselves are finding it harder to make ends meet, so we’ve been providing food in different forums.”
How beneficial has the partnership been between the Gateway Youth Organization and NYRA?
“It’s been helpful, for sure. We’ve held large food distributions; including at Belmont Park and we got a lot of cooperation from the New York Race Track Chaplaincy as well as NYRA to do it on the NYRA premises. On that day, we estimate that we fed about 8,000 people.”
What’s the most rewarding aspect of this job for you?
“I don’t think I could put my finger on just one positive aspect. A lot of people view this job as a babysitting service to make sure that their children are OK so that they can work and stay at their job. We constantly try to put different things into the program and I get enjoyment by seeing if there’s a need and how we can try and find a solution for it.”
In the community…
Aqueduct Racetrack, currently offering live racing without spectators, is also serving as a New York state run COVID-19 vaccination distribution center.
Millions of New Yorkers are currently eligible for the vaccine. To determine eligibility and schedule appointments at New York State-run vaccination sites, visit https://am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.
Thoroughbred racing in New York drives an industry responsible for 19,000 jobs and more than $3 billion in economic impact. These jobs sustain families and expand opportunity for New Yorkers in every corner of the state. To learn more, please watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-cp-U5grbE
A helping hand…
The New York Race Track Chaplaincy of America (NYRTCA) is looking for volunteers to assist with the unloading, organizing, sorting and distribution of donated food items.
Date and Time: Thursdays from 10:00am – 1:00pm
Location: New York Race Track Chaplaincy trailer at Gate 6, Belmont Park, 2150 Hempstead Turnpike, Elmont, NY
Created in 1986, the NYRTCA ministers to the needs of backstretch community at NYRA racetracks through a wide variety of programs, including enrichment programs for children, social service programs, recreational programs, educational opportunities and non-denominational religious services.
“We depend upon our loyal volunteers in order to serve the workers of the backstretch and their families,” said Chaplain Humberto Chavez, who heads the NYRTCA. “One of the most important ways we serve this community of stable workers and their families is through our food pantry. Whether for a special event or ongoing program, your involvement is welcomed and encouraged.”
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.
Day 1 of the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival is highlighted by NYRA ‘s annual “Community Day”, which will take place in 2021 on June 3. Community Day shines a light on the mission and goals of regional non-profits and service providers who set up informational booths and participate in various activities designed to raise awareness and funding for their efforts.
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.
NYRA Press Release and Photo