John Pricci executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Seeking Shelter From the Storm

GLEN COVE, NY, October 27, 2012--Fire and water; polar opposites, right?

Well, that comparison couldn’t be starker when it comes to how horses react to Mother Nature’s whims.

And by all indications, from Maryland to points north, in the next 48 hours Mother Nature’s going to turn into a real bitch.

Thank about every movie you’ve seen where horses are caught in a barn fire. The over-arching rearing inside the stalls, eyeballs popping out of their frightened heads. Every horseplayer—never mind horse lover—can empathize with the scenario.

Sadly, burned in the memory of all Hialeah lovers--before Thoroughbreds left that storied race course--is the image of all those stumps where glorious palm trees once stood, lining the backstretch and framing the horses as they raced toward the half-mile pole.

While the remnants of small winds remain, it’s a glorious, sunny day in South Florida as this is written, zero minus 48 hours or so before Sandy lands in the metropolitan area that cuts a wide swath, just as the hurricane has.

Outside my window on Long Island’s North Shore, I can hear the sound of saws buzzing in the air.

Belmont Park, in Elmont, is about 15 miles from here, mid-Island, virtually in every direction, away from bodies of water that have South Shore residents scrambling in preparation.

Tim Ritvo, President of Gulfstream Park and longtime Florida horseman, has seen his share of hurricanes and the damage they can cause to property and racetrack lives, human and equine.

“[During a storm some years ago], a metal roof on a barn collapsed all around the horses,” recalled Ritvo, dreading what he and his colleagues might eventually find.

“We had blowtorches, bolt cutters and tractors removing all the debris so that we could get to the horses. When we got to them, there wasn’t a scratch on them. When the horses saw us they acted as if they were happy to see the light of day.

“It’s funny, if a piece of paper blows through the shedrow, the horses [overreact]. But when a storm comes, they go to the back of their stall. They look as if they are in shock.

“But they back themselves into a corner of the stall, [appear to] make themselves smaller, put their heads down and [hindquarters] to the wind, keeping themselves quiet.”

Sounds like the animals have been endowed with a kind of Zen-like capability, knowing how to stay safe during a storm while humans scramble all around them making preparations.

“We take precautions [that are used everywhere],” Ritvo explained. “We sandbag all the sheds and corners of the barn, remove anything that can fly, and we bed the horses down deep since we don’t know when we might be able to get to them.

“We stock up on water and make sure to tell our people to secure any loose wiring, stay away from any downed wires…”

Belmont Park, meanwhile, is making preparations, also as this is written. The building, which served as a staging area during 911, is an evacuation center and they are preparing for that eventuality.

Of course, they will take standard precautions in the barn area; securing, sand-bagging, etc.

Meanwhile, Ritvo’s wife, Kathy, was very happy with the final work of Mucho Macho Man for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a “nice and easy” five furlongs in 1:01, following a half-mile of :48, with “a good gallop-out.”

“I’m not sure but I don’t think I’ve heard Kathy talk more confidently going into this race than any race this year,” Ritvo said.

Meanwhile, the Macho Man, and about 25 other horses, several scheduled to breeze Sunday morning, are supposed to ship into SoCal Monday and Tuesday.

“There was some talk that they might ship the horses to Newburgh and fly out from there,” said Ritvo. “Everyone’s aware of the situation.”

Newburgh is two hours north of the metropolitan area and while upstate does not figure to be as adversely affected by the storm as downstate is, the systems coming from the West and from Canada, make that scenario just as dicey.

When the hurricane does arrive, one that the National Weather Service termed early Saturday as a cyclone, horses might be better prepared than their handlers to deal with the emotional fallout.

Written by John Pricci

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