The Outside Rail

At some point, Terry Finley said it out loud.

“If I had the ability to just push the calendar forward so we could wake up on January 1, 2021, I might do it.”

He spoke for himself, and everyone on his West Point Thoroughbreds team, after being told that 10 racehorses died in a van accident on the New Jersey Turnpike June 7. But Finley might have said it anyway – about a global health crisis on pace to kill 200,000 Americans by October, a reeling economy, record unemployment, nationwide protests about racial inequality ignited by the killing of a Minnesota man in police custody and anything else you can muster the courage to contemplate in half-a-year that feels like a decade.

Racing is typically an escape from such calamity. Not so much in 2020. The Belmont Stakes happens Saturday, the first step in a Triple Crown series that will continue with the Kentucky Derby Sept. 5 and the Preakness Stakes Oct. 3. Sure, you can read that again just to let it sink in.

There will be no spectators at Belmont Park.

There will be horses, minus those 10 who died on the highway. There will be backstretch workers, who lost a brother in hotwalker Martin Zapata to Covid-19. There will be trainers, who weathered months with no racing and therefore no income. There will be jockeys, who took a knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters on Belmont’s Opening Day June 3 after leading a moment of silence for Covid-19 victims, healthcare workers and first responders. There will be NYRA communications director Pat McKenna, whose father died this month.

There has been pain to spare in racing – and everywhere else – this year. And the face masks only hide so much.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anything more terrible than the news involving racehorses, an overnight accident and fire on the Jersey Turnpike. The van from Florida was in its eighth state of the day, with one more to go, when it struck a concrete median and burst into flames according to a New York Times report. It was 3 in the morning just outside Trenton, and the end for 10 souls headed to trainer Christophe Clement’s barn at Belmont – two owned by West Point.

Finley was in Ocala, Fla., for the OBS sale. Staffer Joe Migliore had three missed calls when he awoke a little after 6. Marketing officer Dawn Lenert was hiking the Appalachian Trail when the texts and notice to be on a Zoom discussion hit her phone. She wound up on the ground. They told their clients, comforted each other, thought about all the lives touched along the way.

“You feel bad for everybody – the Clement team that was around those two fillies, the kids that got on them and galloped them, the grooms and people who took care of them, the van drivers – everybody,” said Finley. “There’s no way in the world, even in these big barns, that people don’t care about the horses and love the horses.”

West Point bought Hot Mist for $110,000 at Keeneland September in 2018. Bred by Clarkland Farm, the dark bay daughter of Tonalist and the Bustin Stones mare Hot Stones won her debut at Tampa Bay Downs May 16 – pulling away late to score by 2 . lengths. Her next start was probably going to come at Belmont. Also bred by Clarkland, Under The Oaks cost West Point and Chris Larsen $375,000 at the same sale. The bay daughter of American Pharoah and the Lookin At Lucky mare Maybellene finished sixth in her debut May 30. She got bumped at the start, and made a little run late. Like her stablemate, she had plenty of upside. And then she had nothing.

“We bought them at the same sale, Tonalist and American Pharoah, you remember,” said Finley. “You like the looks, you like how they act around you. They were two beautiful fillies that were wellbred, well-raised, well-presented and well-cared-for. They were in the right place, with the right people.”

And now those people will try to carry on. West Point has two fewer racehorses. Clement has 10 empty stalls at Belmont, Saratoga, Payson Park, somewhere. By most measuring sticks, he’s a big trainer – annually among racing’s leaders. He’s won a Belmont Stakes, trained a champion. Ten dead horses would put some trainers out of business. Clement’s business will be OK, eventually. Finley, and anyone else who ever touched a horse, felt for him.

“Every big trainer with a big operation could do a lot of other things,” Finley said. “They’ve got great managerial skills, they could be successful at any business. But they do this. First and foremost, they love the animals. That’s what you get shook up about. He had to train a bunch of horses, had to enter horses, had to do all the things he does every day. He won a race that day with a horse named Therapist . . . Just think about that for a minute.”

Clement did indeed win a race with Therapist June 7. The New York-bred won the open-company First Defence Stakes by a head. Therapist didn’t know of the tragedy suffered early that morning, but he did what he could. Horses are like that. They do what they can, in the face of their mortality, our mistakes, bad luck, mere circumstance. In good times. Bad times too. Even in 2020.

“We all think that it’s cool to be reserved and non-descript when bad things happen and tough situations arise, but you see the emotion and the pain,” said Finley. “I saw it, all around, in our competitors who reached out, our team, our partners. It was very heartfelt. That’s what I take away. These horses as individuals are so captivating. Together they’re components of a lifestyle we all love, but it all starts with them. Then it moves to the trainers and their teams and then the rest of us.”

Don’t forget that. 

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