The Inside Rail

In the ongoing, never-ending, sarcastic, sensationalist, one-upmanship of the Internet, the comment has rung and stung from the beginning.

Does anybody actually know of anyone who has died from this virus?

I read it often at the beginning, less often lately, but still, the vicious, malicious words come calling, crawling from the naysayers, the hoax mongers, the callousness of social media, the ugliness of mankind.

Yeah, I do. You do. Everybody does. Or will, when it’s all said and done.

For Fiona Prine and a legion of fans and friends, it was song-writing legend, John Prine. Her husband. Our God. Gone at 73. For Todd Wyatt, it was his father, his hero, James R. Wyatt Jr., dead at 83. For my friend George Baker, it was his friend’s son, Lee Nurse, a cricket-loving 43-year-old, gone. For Tom Morley, his team and for the Belmont Park community, it was Martin. Dark-skinned, wide-smiling, naturally cordial, ever-present hotwalker, Martin Zapata. Dead at 63.

Those are a few we knew, victims of this dreaded scourge. If you’re asking.

Zapata showed symptoms of COVID-19, tested positive, quarantined, got worse, went to the hospital, was on a ventilator for a week and was gone. That fast. He tested positive March 24. He was dead April 7.

“It hit home of exactly how dangerous this thing is,” Morley said. “That it could happen to one of our own, that it could happen to a seemingly healthy individual. He was 63 years old and never missed a day of work. It’s hard on everybody who worked with him, everybody who knew him, everybody.”

Morley scrolls through his phone and there’s Zapata standing proudly with a big colt. There’s another photo, his Panamanian hotwalker with a filly on the apron at his Belmont Park barn. There’s another one, Yankees’ hat wearing brother of six with a 2-year-old who just shipped in from the farm. There’s one at Saratoga, there’s another one coming home from the track, there’s a perfectly framed conformation shot…

“I have countless photographs of Martin standing horses on the wash rack,” Morley said Thursday. “I was just amazed how many times I had obviously called Martin to stand a horse up for a photo to send to an owner. He loved his horses, he was absolutely fantastic with young horses, big, burly colts, you were always confident to have him at the end of the shank.

“He just knew how to do it. He was just one of those people.”

Yeah, one of those people. A small cog in the ever-spinning wheel of the racetrack. From a Panamanian racing family, friends with jockey Ricardo Santana’s family, Zapata made his way to America and made a life here. He never stopped smiling. Ask anybody, that was his signature. Dropping off The Special at Morley’s Saratoga barn, it was Zapata who greeted you, waved, smiled. Whether you were a paperboy or an owner, Zapata would emcee.

“He was the doorman who always knew your name,” owner and consignor Kip Elser said. “He was always there. Always smiling.”

Yeah, he always showed up. Loved his job. Brightened the world with as much flame as he could light. Just a hotwalker, an immigrant without any family here, a backstretch lifer, a New York year-rounder, part of our world, our family.

“Some of these hotwalkers, they just come in and go around in a circle and go home at the end of the morning. When it was Martin’s turn to go racing or we had a runner in a big race, he made a real effort,” Morley said. “You knew he was going to be there every day. My riders liked Martin, everybody liked Martin, he was just a mainstay of our barn. It’s just…it’s just…he was just…he was just…I’ll never, ever forget him for his smile.”

As ever, the transient nature of the racetrack has added burden to the tragedy as Morley tries to communicate with Zapata’s family in Panama. With an exercise rider as an interpreter, they share a laugh that Zapata used to take care of a good horse in Panama, Tom, Tom something, they can’t remember. His brothers like that he worked for Tom, Tom something in America.

On top of the language barrier, the distance element, the lack of family close by, the worldwide pandemic has ripped away any natural healing process that man has leaned on for centuries. No gatherings, no service, no funeral, no hugs. And, sometimes, no news.

Zapata’s brothers have chosen not to tell their 87-year-old mother. A heart condition, diabetes, she has already lost one son. They can’t face it, can’t broach it, can’t risk it.

“The hospitals in Panama are absolutely overrun at the moment and so his siblings have chosen not to tell her yet for fear that the news could end up hospitalizing her and you couldn’t take her to hospital at the moment,” Morley said. “It’s very difficult for us not to be able to do something for him, it’s what everybody around the world is going through who lose someone, we can’t have a gathering or anything for him. Normally, we’d have a memorial at Belmont, or do something for him, have a proper goodbye. I was thinking of asking if we could have a race for him…”

Make it a good one.

• Morley has set up a GoFundMe page for Zapata at gofundme.com/f/martin-zapata