After Sandy, life goes on at Aqueduct

November, 6, 2012
This past weekend, the hub of the Thoroughbred racing world revolved around the Breeders' Cup, taking place under carefree and idyllic conditions at Santa Anita Park in sunny California.

At the same time, racing moved at a more measured and yet awkward pace in New York, and it had nothing to do with the intense focus placed on the sporting events on the other coast.

Sometimes we get spoiled by all the luxuries we have in life and moments like this and the damage we see from this storm remind us of what life is all about.

-- Trainer Todd Pletcher
Located in the Ozone Park section of Queens next to Kennedy Airport, Aqueduct Racetrack stands about 10-15 miles from areas like the Rockaways, Long Beach and Breezy Point that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Neither Aqueduct nor Belmont Park, located less than 10 miles to the east in Elmont, N.Y., suffered significant damage. Yet for those that work at the track and live in the surrounding area, most were not spared the wrath of a storm that killed at least 40 in New York City, leaving massive damage in its wake and playing no favorites in uprooting lives.

Todd Pletcher, the sport's most successful trainer, won the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile with Shanghai Bobby on Saturday, Nov. 3., in perhaps the series' most dramatic moment, while back home in Garden City, N.Y., Pletcher's home had no electricity. A day later, while standing in the winner's circle after capturing the $200,000 Nashua at Aqueduct with Violence, his house remained in darkness.

"Sometimes we get spoiled by all the luxuries we have in life and moments like this and the damage we see from this storm remind us of what life is all about," Pletcher said.

Some stable workers who live at Belmont Park had no power until Friday, relying on flashlights and car headlights to see at night.

Trainer Gary Contessa lost his apartment in Island Park. Fellow trainers like John Terranova had a tree fall on his Belmont Park barn and Tom Bush had a tree crash through the roof of his home.

Always fertile ground for colorful tales, the Big Apple's racetracks told many of the same grim stories on the lips of millions of New Yorkers about unthinkable damage and loss, life taken back in time to the candle light days of the 1800's and incredibly long lines monitored by police just to buy a couple of gallons of gasoline.

"I feel very lucky to say this, that I lost my apartment," Contessa said. "I live in Saratoga and my home wasn't affected, but my apartment was destroyed. Everything's gone. I lost all my clothing, furniture, my computers, exercise equipment. Everything that was in the house was destroyed and is under 4 feet of sand.

The scene was complete chaos. It took me an hour to drive what normally takes 15 minutes because there were no traffic lights.

-- Trainer Gary Contessa
"And yet I'll tell you I'm blessed because it wasn't my home, and so many other people who live near me are homeless. It was total devastation in that area. It now looks like a war zone."

The 55-year-old Contessa expressed relief that he was home in Saratoga when the storm hit, saying "otherwise I would have been in seven feet of water." A day later, he had trouble comprehending what he was seeing when he drove to Island Park hoping to recover at least some of his possessions.

"The scene was complete chaos. It took me an hour to drive what normally takes 15 minutes because there were no traffic lights," said Contessa, whose apartment was located just outside New York City in the Town of Hempstead, a short drive from Belmont Park. He is now staying in a hotel in Stamford, Conn. "Houses went on fire there and burned down because of electrical shortages. You can see belongings piled up in front of damaged homes. For me, I didn't lose anything that would change my life, but this storm surely did change life for so many people."

Bush, too, came away from the storm with damage to his Elmont home, but had an overriding sense of thanks since his story quite easily could have had a tragic ending.

Bush said he was showering on Oct. 29 at his Elmont home, adjacent to Belmont Park, when he heard what sounded like an explosion above him.

"An oak tree fell on my house and broke through to the attic," Bush said. "It hit like a ton of bricks, but thankfully landed on a center beam that prevented even more damage to the house and saved my wife and I from harm."

Though he lost electricity, Bush's home was spared extensive damage because only a relatively small hole was opened in the roof and the storm was not accompanied by torrential rain that would have poured into the house. He was able to put a temporary cover over the hole and now, after talking to his insurance agent, says he's one of 40,000 claims in the region filed with his carrier.

For all stress interjected into his life, the 61-year-old Bush at least received a reason to smile when the Aqueduct meet opened on Friday, Nov. 2., and he won the first race with Corinizia, who prevailed in a photo finish at generous 17-1 odds.

"That was very nice," Bush said. "She never should have been that price. I think 8-1 was more reflective of her chances, but we'll take it. That was the first good thing to happen to me in a week."

I grew up in this area and I've never seen anything like this. It's something else.

-- Trainer John Terranova
The New York Racing Association, which to its credit donated $100,000 to the American Red Cross for storm damage relief, received a break as the storm hit during a four-day dark period as racing switched from Belmont to Aqueduct, giving it the time it needed to resume most of its everyday activities on Nov. 2. NYRA spokesperson Ashley Herriman said there was a small amount of damage at Aqueduct, like 6 trees that toppled over, while trees had to be removed from the main track at Belmont, where a Daily Racing Form report listed more than 100 fallen trees on the grounds.

There were also some close calls. Like the one at barn 14 at Belmont, when a tree landed on Terranova's barn.

"We have an old barn and the tree hit in a place where there was a support beam so no one was hurt," Terranova said. "The horses handled it fine and we're coping with everything. I live in Syosset and I'm still without power. I grew up in this area and I've never seen anything like this. It's something else."

Contessa's stable workers faced a different sort of problem as one of their horses got free one evening and ran loose around the barn as stable workers chased after him with flashlights in their hands.

It has been an extremely trying time, yet as Contessa sees it, it's one that also brings out the best in the close-knit nature of the racing community.

"If racetrack people are one thing, it's resilient," Contessa said. "That's why we can come together and adjust and deal with the weather or the government or whatever curves that are thrown our way every day. We can bounce back. It's what we do."

Life does go on, especially at a racetrack.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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