When Raj Jagnanan visited his horses at Belmont Park Sunday, he FaceTimed with his wife, Vedhya. While they were talking, American Sailor, decided to interrupt.
“He walked over and put his head over my shoulder and was looking right at my wife,” Jagnanan said Wednesday, less than 24 hours after learning that his beloved 9-year-old gelding was one of two horses to die in a fire Tuesday night. Beastie D, an unraced 3-year-old colt by Verrazano also trained by Wayne Potts was the other horse to perish in the blaze.
“My wife was talking to him and he was listening and moving,” Jagnanan said. “It’s like he was a human.”
American Sailor certainly was a member of the family for Jagnanan, his wife and their three children, which makes the tragedy even more heart-wrenching.
“I still can’t over it,” Jagnanan said. “We have a real bond with this horse. He was very special to us. We traveled all over to watch him run.”
Jagnanan was at Saratoga Race Course last August to watch American Sailor win the Grade 3 Troy Stakes, getting put up when Imprimis was disqualified and placed third.
“That was my first stakes win and the trainer’s first stakes win,” Jagnanan said. “It was very special for me and my family for this horse to give us this win.”
American Sailor was given the winter off and returned to training in early March. He posted four official workouts, three of them bullets, including April 3 when his :47.21 from the gate was the best of 314 works at 4 furlongs.
“He was definitely ready for a big year,” said Jagnanan, pictured left in the Saratoga winner's circle (Tod Marks Photo) “He was training like a monster. It’s amazing for a 9-year-old to work like that.”
Jagnanan, who lives near Aqueduct in South Ozone Park, got the call from Potts just after 6 p.m. Tuesday night. There was a fire, Potts said, and American Sailor was hurt. While Jagnanan was on his way to Belmont, he got the tragic news.
“There were so many fire trucks, and the entire backstretch was helping out,” said Jagnanan, who grateful for the support he received from Amira Chichakly, Robert Falcone Jr., Rob and Brittany Atras, among others. “They are all very kind people and everyone was trying to help.”
Upon arriving at Belmont, Jagnanan went looking for Potts, who was scrambling to track down the rest of his horses. “I was hoping Wayne would tell me that it wasn’t him (who had died),” said Jagnanan, hoping against hope for a case of mistaken identity. “But he told me he didn’t make it.
“This is crazy,” he said. “This is really hard.”
Paul Halloran wrote about American Sailor last summer after he won the Grade 3 Troy via DQ. The story titled "Shipping Up" appeared on Page 22 of the Aug. 12, 2020 edition of The Saratoga Special.
The New York Racing Association's communications team also credited the quick action of horsemen and women in the Belmont backstretch for helping out in the blaze, which occured in Barn 60. The NYRA story is below:
Horsemen come together to save lives amid fire at Belmont Park
A heroic effort from horsemen, the Elmont Fire Department and New York Racing Association, Inc. security personnel saved the lives of 58 horses following a quick response to Tuesday’s active fire in Barn 60 at Belmont Park.
Barn 60’s alarm and sprinkler system immediately notified NYRA’s security personnel at Gate 6 at the onset of the fire. NYRA security notified the Elmont Fire Department, who were on the scene within minutes to extinguish the fire and secure the scene. The New York State Fire Marshal and officials from Nassau County are investigating the cause of the fire, which was not immediately apparent.
A team of horsemen rendered immediate assistance in conjunction with NYRA security to the horses stabled in Barn 60, which holds stalls for horses trained by Wayne Potts and Jeffrey Englehart.
Two Potts trainees, American Sailor and Beastie D, succumbed in the fire. Three workers were treated onsite for minor issues.
“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.”
New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, who visited the Belmont Park vaccination site on Wednesday morning, lauded the efforts of the racing community who risked their lives to safely evacuate horses.
"Due to really extraordinary efforts by first responders, the fire department, and staff here at NYRA, 58 horses were saved. Two horses perished but they did a really outstanding job,” said Cuomo.
Trainer Robert Falcone Jr, who has stalls in Barn 39, was among the first responders on Tuesday evening. He said he was on his way to the track kitchen where he had parked his truck when he saw smoke coming from Barn 60.
“I knew something wasn’t right, so I ran back to our barn and yelled to my team to grab shanks and halters and hurry up,” said Falcone, Jr.
Falcone, Jr. led a cavalry that included Madilyn Kerker, Alex Rivera, Ever Florian, and Scott Mills.
He also took the briefest of moments to send a message out on Facebook, "We need all hands on deck at Belmont barn on fire if you are at belmont come to barn 60 now !!"
Falcone Jr. said at that time of the evening, most horsemen are at home.
“I thought I’d post it and that someone from the backside is bound to see it and once one person sees it, they’ll start calling people,” said Falcone Jr. “It all happened very quick.”
Falcone Jr. said many horsemen arrived at Barn 60 to assist.
“Pablo Fragoso, a jockey, was there; ‘A-Rod’ from the gate crew was there; trainers Talie Lynch, Ray Handal and Brad Cox’s assistant Dustin Dugas all came to help,” said Falcone Jr. “The outrider Miguel [Gutierrez], blacksmith Troy Lynch and so many others were there.”
Falcone Jr. said the brave group of horsemen navigated through smoky conditions inside Barn 60 to evacuate the horses working in tandem with Potts’ stable workers.
“It was really smoky in there,” he said. “We were trying to get through a shed row full of smoke and get into stalls of horses and you can’t see into the stalls. At the same time, there were horses without halters running down the shed row that you can’t see. As you’re running in and out, as soon as someone yells, ‘loose horse,’ you have to get against the wall because you don’t know where he’s coming from.
“As soon as we took the horses out, someone would take them from us and get them to a safe spot. Then we would go back in and get more and come back out again. We started using the cross bar [stall guard] when we ran out of shanks to run back in and keep getting them out.”
A chain of horsemen and security personnel worked together to safely evacuate the horses from smoky conditions and eventually bedded down in other barns across the Belmont backstretch.
“Dustin had 21 empty stalls on his side, so we started counting up horses and sending them over,” said Falcone Jr. “It was pretty quick how fast we organized everything in that time frame and in those circumstances.”
Falcone Jr said he and his staff didn’t think twice about rushing in to assist their fellow horsemen.
“There’s not many of us making a great living doing this. We do it for the horses and even when they’re not horses in your barn, when something happens everyone bands together so quickly,” he said. “It’s not even a thought process, it’s just somebody needs help and go. We’re all here for one reason and it’s because we love the horses.
“When something tragic happens, you always wonder if you could have done more. But to be honest, I’m not sure we could have reacted much faster than that. We were hauling ass.”
Although it was an incredible team effort on the part of so many on the scene, Falcone Jr. did express regret that they were unable to save the Raj Jagnanan-owned American Sailor, a 9-year-old son of City Zip with 15 wins and more than $500,000 in purse earnings; and Beastie D, an unraced 3-year-old owned by Dan Eubanks.
“I feel so bad for the horses that died. I was in the stall with Wayne for American Sailor,” said Falcone Jr. “Wayne was standing next to me and the horse was somewhere in the stall and you couldn’t even see each other. We were trying to get the horse out but it was impossible to see and communicate. We just had to get out of there. You can only stay in there for so long in all that before you’re going to pass out. I feel so bad we couldn’t get him out.”
Trainer Mertkan Kantarmaci, who has horses stalled in Barn 46 at Belmont, was one of the many to see Falcone Jr.’s Facebook post and spring into action. The conditioner immediately called his foreman, Sergio Hernandez.
“I saw Robert's post on Facebook and I called my foreman immediately. He was in the dorm by my barn and I asked him to go by,” said Kantarmaci. “He called back and told me there were loose horses and I immediately started driving to Belmont.”
During Kantarmaci’s 25-minute drive to Belmont, a number of first responders were already onsite and affecting care.
“By the time I got to Belmont there were fire trucks and police and NYRA security all over the place,” said Kantarmaci. “I went to see Barn 60 first and to see if they needed help with loose horses. There were almost 200 people there to help. I'm very happy they were able to help all the horses in that big barn with 60 horses.”
Kantarmaci, who also shared the call for help on his Twitter account, stayed at Belmont late into the evening to offer his assistance and spend time with his staff and horses.
“I stayed longer last night and spoke to a few trainers who were out spotting horses,” said Kantarmaci. “It's all hands on deck when there's an emergency at the track. You have to go for the horse.”
Potts took to Facebook late Tuesday to issue a statement expressing his deep regret at the loss of two horses and his appreciation for the efforts of all who arrived to offer their assistance.
“I wanted to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude to everyone who assisted in removing my horses from the fire this evening,” he said. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart to every single one of you that put yourselves at risk to make sure 58 horses are able to see another day. The actions of so many this evening proved that this industry is a family with a fierce love of the horse that triumphs over anything else.”