Six Drivers, a 4-year-old New York-bred racehorse, was 0-for-4 lifetime. Caixa Eletronica was a star, a 9-year-old multiple-stakes winner for high-profile owner Mike Repole and champion trainer Todd Pletcher. These two thoroughbreds never would have met in a race, but on a frigid morning Saturday at Belmont Park, their fates intertwined for a few violent moments, and neither survived a head-on collision.
After Six Drivers wheeled behind the starting gate and threw exercise rider Julio Pezua, he bolted in the opposite direction toward Caixa Eletronica, galloping under Carlos Castro on the training track near the 5 1/2-furlong pole. Six Drivers crashed into Caixa Eletronica around 8 a.m., and both died instantly, according to Dr. Anthony Verderosa, chief examining veterinarian for the New York Racing Association. Six Drivers suffered a fractured neck, Caixa Eletronica a fractured skull.
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Byron Hughes, Pletcher's New York assistant, said Castro's wife told him that her husband suffered a fractured pelvis and needed reconstructive facial surgery. Pezua was unhurt, according to Manny Gonzalez, assistant to Six Drivers' trainer, Chris Englehart.
'He stopped very abruptly'
Neither Hughes nor Gonzalez saw the accident, which clocker Stephen Foster said occurred about 30 seconds after Six Drivers ran off. "All of a sudden, this loose horse stopped, went down and boom," said Foster, who said he couldn't see the collision. "He stopped very abruptly and must've hit something."
In horse racing, the rare highs are sublime and the frequent lows are brutal, and this random disaster is as bad as it gets. Repole, a Nassau County resident, owned 2010 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo and 2011 Travers winner Stay Thirsty, but said he was just as fond of Caixa Eletronica, a chestnut horse he claimed for $62,500 in March 2011.
"I'm devastated," Repole wrote in an email to Newsday. "Caixa was a true warrior. His True North win, when he came from last, 20 lengths out, was something no horse today could do. . . . Truly an amazing horse and a fan favorite."
Caixa Eletronica had 23 wins in 69 starts, earning more than $1.86 million. For Repole -- "caixa eletronico" is Portuguese for "cash machine" -- he was 11-for-29, including seven stakes victories, and earned $1,601,800.
'A terrible shock'
"It's a terrible day for racing," Repole said. "For any horse, it's horrible. When you hear it's Caixa Eletronica, it's magnified. He was such an iron horse. For him to pass away like this makes no sense."
Pletcher, in Florida, called Repole after hearing from Hughes. "It was a terrible shock, one of the worst things that could happen in racing," Pletcher said. "It's just a freak accident, nobody's fault. What makes it worse is Caixa went from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of American racing."
Evan Gewirtz, of West Hills, claimed Six Drivers for $16,000 out of a Dec. 27 race at Aqueduct, and the bay gelding was scheduled to debut for Island Wind Racing at Aqueduct Sunday. Gonzalez said they wanted to school the relatively inexperienced horse in the gate. "Julio [Pezua] said when the horse saw the gate, he spooked and took off," Gonzalez said.
Gewirtz said he's owned thoroughbreds for 12 years. "I estimate we've had close to 1,000 starts," he said, "and this was the first horse we lost. It's an awful feeling, and I feel terrible for Mike Repole and Todd Pletcher."
Englehart also expressed condolences to Repole and Pletcher. "It made it 10 times worse when I found out who the other horse was," Englehart said. "[In 39 years] I never lost a horse like that before."
Gewirtz said he hoped the accident wouldn't provoke protests from animal-rights groups. "It was an unfortunate thing that just happened," he said. "There was nothing you could do about it."
With Laura Albanese