When Dr. Jerry Bortolazzo received a diagnosis of malignant melanoma of the scalp and was given one year to live, he had no idea that the seemingly catastrophic news would give him a new lease on life.
At first it seemed like an unfortunate twist of irony. A doctor himself, Bortolazzo had built the third-largest chain of emergency care clinics across the country. When he was given his diagnosis, he sold the company and retired.
Fortunately, it turned out his prognosis was incorrect. Suddenly, Bortolazzo found himself with means and time to spare, and he decided to take the opportunity to become involved in his true love since childhood — horse racing.
“I was reading the Racing Form by the time I was 10. I placed my first illegal bet at Bay Meadows at 15,” recalled Bortolazzo. “I’d always told my wife I’d wanted to own racehorses, and we’d always put it off. She basically sent me out to the sale … and said, ‘Don’t buy a cheap one. Buy one we can win with.’”
He did just that. In 2011, Bortolazzo Stable campaigned a horse named Big Blue Nation, who finished third in the grade I Hopeful Stakes, making him an early Kentucky Derby prospect. Last year, the stable’s trainees won their races at an unheard-of rate of 40 percent.
As he began learning the business end of horse ownership, Bortolazzo found that transporting his horses between Kentucky, New York and Florida could get expensive fast. Around the same time, Bortolazzo’s son, Chris, was returning home from two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army and was having difficulty finding a job after life in the military.
It’s a problem that faces many veterans, a group for whom the unemployment rate was as high as 30 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds in 2011, as compared to the civilian rate of 15.3 percent at that time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While their situation has improved slightly in the past 12 months, Bortolazzo believes that the already competitive job market has been hesitant to embrace veterans who spent time in the service rather than building job experience in the private sector, or whose jobs are cheaper when outsourced or mechanized.
Bortolazzo had an idea; he sent his son to work for free on a Kentucky horse farm to get him accustomed to caring for and handling horses and proceeded to set up GI Horse Transport.
Initially, the business was just Bortolazzo and his son hauling Bortolazzo Stable’s Thoroughbreds, but over time friends began asking the two men to ship their horses as well, so the Bortolazzos began hiring other veterans and took the company public.
“It’s surprising how many other veterans work on these farms and are proud to see us come in to pick up or deliver horses,” Jerry Bortolazzo said. “I didn’t think we’d make that much of an impact, but it was my way of encouraging my friends to do the same thing.”
Fortunately, a national trend toward helping put veterans to work seems to be taking shape. Earlier this month, Wal-Mart pledged to hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years.
“This is payback,” Jerry Bortolazzo said. “These guys volunteered. It’s not a draft. They volunteered in wartime to go to war.”
Although he lives in Georgia, Bortolazzo thought that the Bluegrass was the best base for a company like this one. For one thing, it’s a great source of veterans who grew up handling horses — a component that is critical, because they often require some hands-on care during long trips. For another, it’s a hub for the Thoroughbred industry.
“People always talk about how horse racing is a dying industry, but I don’t see that. I see it as a vibrant industry that puts a lot of people to work,” he said.
He emphasized that the company is still in its very early stages. It began taking on outside work in March and has only a handful of employees who hail from both the Army and Marine Corps. He doesn’t expect his small operation to compete with the established national haulers such as Sallee or Brookledge. Instead, he is using his business sense from his time at the helm of the emergency clinic chain to offer “small guys” an affordable rate for transportation, as well as the opportunity to help those who have served our country.
“We aim to be a low-cost provider. We can’t present ourselves as having the experience of a Sallee or a Brookledge, so we charge a lot less. We have minimal overhead, and I don’t take a salary, so we can do that,” Jerry Bortolazzo said.
While he’s not sure what lies in the future for GI Horse Transport, he hopes that he and his son will grow the company the way he grew his emergency medicine chain — one truck and office at a time.
“I kind of look at my veterans as the ‘small guys,’ and I look at these farms who are trying to get by as the ‘small guys,’” he said. “America always roots for the ‘small guys.’”