11/02/2012 2:52PM

Hurricane Sandy spares Belmont Park, but not the neighborhood


ELMONT, N.Y. – Three days after Hurricane Sandy ripped through New York, everything looks pretty normal at Belmont Park. More than 100 trees fell there during the storm, but by Friday morning they had all been cleared and training had returned to normal after being suspended earlier in the week.

A look across the street, though, reveals that all is not yet well. A line of cars at the lone open gas station stretches several blocks and snakes around the corner, no end of it in sight.

In this community devastated by floods, the loss of electricity and heat, and a gas shortage, the racetrack offers a kind of sanctuary.

Trainer Mark Hennig, one of many without heat or electricity, was glad to get to work Friday morning.

“I’m charging my phone here,” he said, “and today’s the first time I’ve seen television all week.”

Walking to the clubhouse turn of the main track to watch his horses jog, he headed straight for the clocker’s stand.

“It’s warm in there,” he said. “I’ve been cold for four days.”

Hennig knows first-hand how much worse things could be. He has family nearby whose homes were flooded when the Atlantic Ocean came rushing on shore Tuesday. He’s been dividing his time between training his horses and helping clean up the damage left by Hurricane Sandy.

Trainer Rick Schosberg, also without heat or electricity, has been spending his afternoons cleaning up the trees that are down on his property, but, he said, “In the scope of things, we were lucky. The majority of people are much worse off than we are.”

Belmont Park sustained no serious damage. A tree fell on John Terranova’s barn, but according to the New York Racing Association’s Glenn Kozak, neither humans nor horses were injured and the damage was quickly repaired. The track was without power from Monday to late Wednesday afternoon, but never without water. Backstretch conditions were trying for the workers who live at the track who had to weather cold nights and limited access to food, and the Backstretch Employees Service Team did what it could to supply blankets and nourishment.

“NYRA has been wonderful,” Hennig said. “They were out here raking leaves two days ago because all the trees were already cleaned up.” Fortunately and perhaps surprisingly, one tree Hennig was worried about required no post-storm attention.

“I was thinking about the paddock tree,” he said, referring to the nearly 200-year-old iconic white pine that is the centerpiece of the Belmont walking ring. “I thought, ‘That tree couldn’t have stayed up.’ I jumped out of the car and went running in there, and it was still there.”

Training hours were adjusted to accommodate the track personnel who had to work in early-morning darkness for two days; the tracks opened at 7 a.m., an hour later than usual, and stayed open until 11 a.m. Joshua Flores, assistant to trainer Tom Albertrani, said with a smile, “Nobody minded starting a little later.”

Starting later wasn’t an option for him Wednesday morning, though. Because of flights canceled earlier in the week, he had to get Brilliant Speed and Belle of the Hall on a van to ship to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup at 4:30 a.m.

“We pulled the cars up to the barn and got the headlights in the shed row, bandaged them up, and put them on the van,” he said. “It wasn’t too bad.”

Flores, Schosberg, and Hennig all said that their horses came out of the storm fine. Hennig was pleasantly surprised, in fact, by his horses’ reaction.

“They were so calm,” he said. “The barns are well-built, and it doesn’t seem like they were affected very much.

Racing moved to Aqueduct on Friday, and though the two tracks are only 10 miles apart, Aqueduct never lost power and sustained minimal damage. The biggest concern now for trainers is the need to conserve gas while traveling with horses from Belmont. NYRA provides free shipping between tracks, but only one person from each barn can accompany the horses. Hennig said that he’s likely to hire a private van so that he or his assistant can travel with his horses and avoid using precious gas.

NYRA manager of racing operations Bruce Johnstone said that for the moment gas isn’t a problem for the track vehicles.

“We’ve got a private supply, so we’ll be okay for a while,” he said. “We don’t expect a problem for our vans, tractors, and ontrack vehicles. Are we going to be able to get to work? That’s another question.”

Opening day at Aqueduct got off on schedule, no small achievement given the region-wide transport difficulties.

“Service is being restored slowly, and we know that people are doing the best they can,” NYRA spokesperson Ashley Herriman said. “We know that we won’t have everyone here today.”

One person who did make it was trainer Tom Bush, who lives adjacent to Belmont Park and was among the storm’s victims when an oak tree fell on his house, ripping what he described as “a big hole” in the attic.

And it was Bush’s Corinzia who won the first post-Sandy race in New York.

“That was terrific,” he said with a big smile. “Now if I can just find some gas, I’ll be good.”