Friday, May. 24, 2024

The Doctor Is Out. . .At The Far Hills Races

In 1987, Kathleen Toomey walked into Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J., and received a surprise greeting.

"Hello, doctor," said a nurse cheerfully. "How are you today?"

Toomey, an oncologist who'd decided that year to enter private practice and become affiliated with Somerset Medical Center, was floored. Hospitals are known for being more sterile than social; seldom had Toomey seen a facility where doctors, or even patients, received a genuine greeting from a staff
member they didn't know.


In 1987, Kathleen Toomey walked into Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J., and received a surprise greeting.

“Hello, doctor,” said a nurse cheerfully. “How are you today?”

Toomey, an oncologist who’d decided that year to enter private practice and become affiliated with Somerset Medical Center, was floored. Hospitals are known for being more sterile than social; seldom had Toomey seen a facility where doctors, or even patients, received a genuine greeting from a staff
member they didn’t know.

Toomey would soon learn more about this unique health center in the middle of Somerset County, like the fact that a local steeplechase meet raised about half a million dollars for it every year. And Toomey was expected, like hundreds of other hospital employees and volunteers, to attend, work, support or cheer at the Far Hills Race Meeting, which attracts about 50,000 people to Moorland Farms in Far Hills on a Saturday each October.

“I attend the races every year now,” said Toomey. “People put on parties, and it’s colorful because it’s the Northeast in the fall. The animals are beautiful, and people dress up in riding costumes. It’s the place to be seen; people running for governor come, people from the House of Representatives come.”

Since the 1950s, the Far Hills meet has raised more than $500 million for Somerset Medical Center. As one of the largest race meetings on the National Steeplechase Associ-ation circuit, Far Hills hosts the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase, which carries a purse of $250,000. The meet’s total prize money is $525,000.

Meanwhile, Somerset Medical Center continues to thrive on the contributions from its main benefactor. Funds from the races have added so much to the collective improvement of the hospital that it’s now credited as one of the finest facilities in New Jersey, said David Flood, president of the Somerset Medical Center Foundation. Right now, the girders are going up on a new cancer-treatment center to be named in honor of the Far Hills Races.

Most of the 38 race meets on the NSA circuit have some sort of charitable tie. But the success of Far Hills, and the event’s ability to help fund new technologies and facilities at Somerset Medical Center, illustrates a win-win relationship seldom seen between an equine event and something much larger: improvements in healthcare for thousands of the state’s residents.

A Year-Round “Labor Of Love”
So much has changed since the first Far Hills steeplechase meet 85 years ago. In 1918, long before big industries established headquarters in this part of rural New Jersey, the Essex Foxhounds Race Meeting Association organized the race meet. When the race committee decided to get involved with a charity in 1955, a joint venture was born between the steeplechase and Somerset Medical Center.

John von Stade has been either chairman or co-chairman of the event since 1973, but he started back in the 1960s as co-chairman of the stabling committee.

“When I moved to Far Hills in 1964, only about 3,000 to 4,000 people attended the event,” he said. “Real growth came from 1983 and 1984 on, and in the early to mid-’90s, our ticket sales hit 45,000 to 50,000.”


Although Far Hills is a one-day event, von Stade insisted that it’s a “year-round labor of love” for him, co-chairman Guy Torsilieri, and the volunteers to figure out how to improve the race meeting. The event was first promoted as a family day in the country, but in more recent years, it’s also become a social event for businesses. The broader focus drew thousands of corporate dollars for booth rentals and sponsorships and exposed more people to the sport.
Far Hills was also the first steeplechase to increase visibility with a Jumbotron screen. Even in a highly traditional sport like steeplechasing, the giant screen was such a hit in 2003 that von Stade and Torsilieri erected three screens in 2004 and 2005.

The race co-chairmen are also known for spur-of-the-moment decisions.

“Last year there was so much rain that we moved the hurdles [between races] so the horses would have new footing,” Torsilieri said. “That had never been thought of before.”

The relationship between von Stade and Torsilieri began in the late ’70s, when Torsilieri’s landscaping company took over the turf management at Moorland Farms. The two men now serve not only as race organizers, but also as hospital board members, which gives them a rare perspective on how to realize the needs of both organizations.

“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful, I think, is because the races and the hospital have never been a conflict of interest for us,” said Torsilieri, adding that sometimes other meets have difficulty getting along with their charities.

A Community Affair
For Helen Tarantino, 84, a resident of Somerville, N.J., the Far Hills meet is a “marvelous, wonderful affair.” Tarantino’s husband used to lead his orchestra in the VIP tent, and her son has been the bugler at the races for 26 years.

“People start swarming in from all directions,” said Tarantino. “It looks like a sea of people with all the tailgating. All the booths have drinks and food, and some are really elaborate, with candelabrums and beautiful spreads.”

Even on years when floods or a cold drizzle compromise the day, race attendance is still around 35,000. Most of the tickets are pre-sold, but hardy spectators seem to take pride in banding together against the elements with space heaters, warm boots and raincoats.

Tarantino said that you can see the same kind of commitment from the staff at Somerset Medical Center.

“I’m very interested in the success of the hospital because they took such good care of my husband,” she said. Her husband, Connie Tarantino, died three years ago, and Helen said he received the best care possible at Somerset. “I never felt like he was neglected, and they were always there to help him. We’re very fortunate to have a hospital like this in the region; other nearby hospitals don’t meet the same standard.”

Features such as the 40,000-square-foot emergency department, oncology pavilion, state-of-the-art maternity ward, and seven operating suites for a total of 18 operating rooms set Somerset Medical Center apart from other regional hospitals. And those are just the facilities that the race’s donations have helped make possible. Of the recent $100 million project to expand and modernize the hospital, $20 million came from the community.


“That’s huge for a place like this–or any hospital, frankly,” said Flood.

Rather than simply asking for money, the foundation focuses on building meaningful relationships through events like the races, said Flood. As a result, funds from the Far Hills meet have enabled Somerset to attract more clinical personnel and provide about $39 million in charity care.

“Cancer Is Like A Steeplechase”
The connection between the hospital and the races will become more visible when the new Steeplechase Cancer Center, a 60,000-square-foot facility, is completed by the end of this year.

The cancer-treatment facility at Somerset Medical Center will bring all cancer treatment services, as well as the hospital’s cancer researchers, under one roof. Toomey calls it “one-stop shopping” for patients who currently must travel to different offices for radiation treatments, chemotherapy and support services. The center will also house outpatient blood transfusions, oncology research, offices and a breast cancer center.

“There’s a healthy bistro, a healing garden patients getting chemotherapy can see from their chairs, and a two-story fireplace in the lobby,” said Toomey, who specializes in breast cancer.

The oncology committee consulted cancer patients about the design of the building, which resembles the kind of lodge you’d find at a national park.
Toomey also consulted her patients on the name the foundation chose for the center.

“They like it because cancer is like a race; you have to get over all those hurdles,” Toomey said. “Plus, they said that the common practice of naming a cancer center after someone who’s dead doesn’t give them a lot of hope.”

More Than Just A Charity
At New Jersey’s Far Hills Races, where coveted tailgating spaces are willed to family members and Somerset Medical Center employees volunteer for everything from parking lot duty to pre-race envelope-stuffing, the symbiotic relationship continues.

“This isn’t just a charity,” said David Flood, president of the Somerset Medical Center Foundation. “It’s a tradition. There’s a lot of interaction here.”
But it’s still not enough for Guy Torsilieri and John von Stade, the race meet’s co-chairmen. They point out that community awareness is something they’re always trying to improve. For instance, they regret that there’s still a faction of enthusiastic race-goers who party in October with no understanding of what their money is making possible at the hospital.

But even if some fans don’t know where their ticket funds are going, the biggest hurdle has already been cleared: consistent community support for a good cause.

And they come every year, rain or shine, in sickness–and in health.




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