Heroes Battled Barn Fire at Belmont Park – Two horses sadly perished
Every time he receives a call about a fire, Elmont fire chief Ron Conti gets an uneasy feeling.
But at a little past 6 p.m. April 13, when he learned of a fire in the stable area at Belmont Park, it brought back a gruesome memory. A little more than 35 years ago, Conti was one of approximately 200 firefighters who battled a January 1986 blaze at Barn 48 at Belmont which killed 45 horses trained by John Campo and Mike Daggett.
“As I was driving toward the scene, I could see there was a lot of smoke and I thought about 1986 when we could only save two horses,” Conti said. “It was scary.”
The outcome was much different Tuesday. This time, 58 horses were rescued while two sadly perished. The catastrophe could have been far worse under more adverse conditions, such as the 1986 fire which happened at about 1 a.m. when most people were asleep, while the barn’s sprinkler system was being repaired.
“With the updated sprinkler systems they have now, the sprinklers worked and did their job. I don’t know what happened in 1986, but they stored hay in the rafters of the barn and once the hay caught fire it spread across the whole barn,” Conti said. “It could have been a lot worse this time, but no people were hurt. Some people had some smoke inhalation but they were OK, and no one went to the hospital.”
The time of day was certainly a key factor. At 6 p.m., there was still a contingent of workers from the horses’ afternoon feed time in the area and once again the backstretch community at Belmont worked together, some at the risk of their own life, to save the Thoroughbreds trained by Wayne Potts and Jeffrey Englehart who were trapped inside Barn 60.
“The engines arrived about five minutes after the call and I got here before the engines, and there was already a lot of people running around, pulling out the horses and breaking the windows,” Conti said. “Everybody was working to help the horses.”
There were many heroes Tuesday, but foremost among the list should be trainer Luis Miranda, who is believed to have been the first outside horseman to heroically ignore his own safety and rush into the smoldering, smoke-filled structure to help with the life-threatening task of liberating the horses from stalls that could have easily turned into tombs.
“You have to talk to Miranda,” blacksmith Tom Hannaberry shouted on the April 14 morning after the fire as life went on at the surrounding barns. “He saved 50 horses.”
Much like the old West, backstretch tales can sometimes be exaggerated. Miranda says he pulled out “only” five horses, but there’s little doubt that by responding so quickly and entering the barn before firefighters arrived, he encouraged numerous others to join him in freeing the terrified horses.
“The smoke was so intense, I decided I had to go and do something,” Miranda said.
Miranda was sitting outside Barn 61, where his four horses are stabled, when he heard an uproar from the horses in the adjacent barn.
When he looked up, he saw billows of thick, black smoke pouring out of the barn next to him and sprang into action.
“I went in and I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t even see the horses,” Miranda said. “That’s how bad it was.”
Using his instincts to find his way to the horses through the choking smoke, Miranda then struggled to find a halter to pull the panicked horses out of their stall.
“I was going crazy looking for halters. They were all on the other side of the barn. I finally found one and brought a horse out. I gave him to (groom) Tony Sanchez and went back in for another one.”
Sanchez said a horse’s natural reaction to a perilous situation, such as a fire, is to stay in an area which it perceives to be safe. In this instance, that was their stall, complicating matters for Miranda and other rescuers as some of the horses tried to return to their stalls after they were let loose.
“When it got smoky most of the horses didn’t want to leave their stall because they couldn’t see and their instinct is to stay where it’s safe, which they believe is their stall,” Sanchez said.
Miranda had rescued three horses by the time firemen arrived and though the fire was quickly contained, smoke became the biggest danger.
“I couldn’t even breathe in there. I don’t know how I made it through. I just held my breath for as long as I could,” he said.
For a while, the scene was unlike anything Miranda had ever experienced.
“I wasn’t sure of what to do,” he said. “There was smoke, the sprinklers were pouring water down. There was broken glass all over. I was afraid to just let horses loose because they wouldn’t be able to see and would crash into each other. I was able to get two more horses out before things were under control.”
Potts, who lost $500,000 earner American Sailor and the unraced Beastie D in the fire, drove to the scene from an apartment about two miles from Belmont and arrived shortly after the firefighters. He along with trainer Rob Falcone rushed into the barn and began to furiously rip down stall webbing to free as many of his 48 horses as possible.
“Rob and I were running through the barn trying to get as many horses as possible out and through the door,” Potts said. “It was like a scene out of a movie. There were horses running and one knocked me down. I was down on my hands and knees and soaking wet but I had to get up. I tried to get in American Sailor’s stall but I couldn’t. It was an awful scene. I’m heartbroken American Sailor and Beastie D couldn’t be saved. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, ever.”
Once horses ran out of the barn, it was people like trainer Marvin Richards, whose horses are stabled at Barn 61, who caught them.
“I saw black smoke coming through the windows of the barn and people started running back and forth, so, I grabbed a shank and tried to catch some of the loose horses. It was an extremely wild scene,” Richards said. “It was chaotic, with people running around trying to catch the horses that got loose. Once we got them, we took them to empty barns and stalls.”
Like everyone else, Richards was thankful that the fire did not break out at night when it would have taken longer for people to spring into action.
“It could have been worse if there wasn’t so many hands to help,” he said.
That there were helping hands from people such as Falcone, fellow trainers Talie Lynch and Ray Handel, and assistant trainer Dustin Dugas and their workers was a saving grace in Potts’ mind.
“If it wasn’t for the help we received, we never would have gotten 58 horses out of the barn,” he said. “The help was tremendous. I have a very heartfelt thanks for everyone.”
That willingness to help during such a dire situation was not a surprise to New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president Joe Appelbaum.
“Our community is extremely strong and while they compete all the time on the track, we know we have to work together. The bravery and the heroics of people, including the (New York Racing Association) security personnel and firemen, were incredible,” Appelbaum said. “We had people coming by later to offer help with water or feed. It was remarkable what everyone did. It was truly amazing.”
From NYRA, there was also thanks for the heroic actions of everyone who responded to the scene.
“We are appreciative of the timely response of our security team, the Elmont Fire Department, and the brave assistance of horsemen from the New York racing community who helped in the effort to safely evacuate horses,” said Glen Kozak, NYRA senior vice president for operations and capital projects. “We at NYRA offer our condolences to the connections of the two horses that died in this unfortunate accident. NYRA is continuing to work with the New York State Fire Marshal.”
Conti was uncertain of what caused the fire, though he said it appeared to start in the vicinity of stalls near the middle of the barn where American Sailor and Beastie D were kept.
Potts said neither he nor Englehart store hay in the loft of the barn, which he said helped to limit the scope of the fire that did not cause extensive structural damage to the barn.
For Miranda, being on the grounds at 6 p.m. is part of his normal routine. He says he generally spends 15-18 hours a day at the barn, tending to the handful of horses he trains.
“My wife passed away two years ago and this is my life,” he said. “I go to work and I don’t want to go home. What am I going to do at home? So, I stay here. I love the horses. I’ve been around horses practically my whole life.”
Miranda started working with horses when he was 10 in Puerto Rico and was a jockey and exercise rider before starting his training career in the United States in 2012. He’s won only 13 races since then.
“Right now I’m in a big hole, but I love the business,” he said.
Miranda’s horses may be a combined 1-for-109 in 2019-21, yet if there is indeed such a thing as the Racing Gods, after his heroics on Tuesday evening, there should be a longshot winner awaiting him in the very near future.
He, as well as many others, surely deserves it.
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