Two racehorses at Belmont Park died Tuesday night and 58 others were rescued after a fire broke out inside a barn at the Elmont racetrack, according to Nassau police and the New York Racing Association.
The other horses were safely evacuated with the help of NYRA security, backstretch staff and firefighters, officials said.
The Elmont Fire Department responded to the scene and extinguished the fire with assistance from the barn's fire sprinkler system, said Michael Uttaro, Nassau's assistant chief fire marshal.
"The tragic loss of both horses will be deeply felt by the hard working women and men of the New York racing community, who dedicate themselves to the sport and to the care of these equine athletes," said Dave O’Rourke, NYRA president and chief executive, in a statement posted Tuesday night on the association's website.
"That collective dedication and sense of community was on display this evening, when the heroic and selfless response of so many prevented further loss and saved the lives of dozens of horses."
Three male employees at the barn were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation, NYRA said. Nassau police initially said the men had been hospitalized. Fire departments from Floral Park and Valley Stream also responded to the scene.
The fire was reported shortly after 6 p.m. at Barn 60, which holds stalls for horses under the care of trainers Wayne Potts and Jeffrey Englehart.
The horses that died, both of whom were under Potts' care, were identified as American Sailor, a nine-year-old Chestnut Gelding, and Beastie D, a three-year-old Verrazano colt, Potts wrote in a Facebook post where he credited first responders for saving the other horses.
"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," Potts wrote.
Beastie D, Potts wrote, was a recent purchase who had an "abundance of class and potential," while American Sailor was "a part of my family and took my operation to a new level." American Sailor won the 2020 Troy Stakes race in Saratoga.
"We were preparing for a nine-year-old campaign and he had been training fantastic," Potts said of American Sailor. "This was a horse that owed me absolutely nothing. He was the pride and joy of my stable and was the horse that took me places in my career that I had only ever dreamed of going. Sailor was so loved by everyone that worked with and around him. He was one of the sweetest horses to be around in the stall, but when he stepped foot on the track he was nothing but business. He was family."
Nassau County Arson and Bomb Squad detectives, the New York State Fire Marshal and the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control are investigating the cause of the blaze.
Meanwhile, two animal rights groups, New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets and PETA called on the State Gaming Commission to conduct a full investigation of fire safety at all horse racing facilities statewide as well as the conditions and whereabouts of other horses that were evacuated from the fire.
"This latest deadly fire at Belmont highlights the dire need for accountability and reform of a corrupt industry that places profits over horses and people," NYCLASS executive director Edita Birnkrant said in a statement Wednesday.
NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna said the groups were attempting to "capitalize [on a] tragic accident in a transparent effort to further their own extreme agenda. The heroic actions of dozens of NYRA employees, backstretch workers, trainers and assistant trainers saved the lives of 58 horses," who are now safely stabled in other barns at Belmont.
Before the fire, 11 horses had died at Belmont this year — seven attributed to training and four labeled "other," indicating a potential illness, infection or injury that occurred in the barn, according to data maintained by the State Gaming Commission.
In 2020, there were 52 reported horse deaths at Belmont, including seven linked to a race; 27 that occurred while training and 18 others classified as "other," the database shows.
The historic track at Belmont has been witness to some of the most iconic moments in horse racing history. It's also had its share of fires that have killed racehorses, and at least one person.
Tuesday's barn blaze was reminiscent of a June 1999 fire at Belmont Park that killed three racehorses — 2-year-old Graceful Finish, a filly, and 3-year-olds Clear to Launch and Surely Handsome — after it swept through the Barn No. 8 annex receiving stable. Six people were injured after inhaling smoke in the blaze. Fire officials said a stable loft was stacked with hay, which fueled the flames.
A trainer told Newsday that Graceful Finish and Clear to Launch had a combined value of as much as $440,000.
In January 1986, a barn sprinkler system — credited with helping douse Tuesday's flames — had been shuttered for repairs sustained in freezing weather when a fast-moving fire killed 45 horses, 44 thoroughbreds and a work horse. The value of the horses at the time was as much as $5 million, according to a Newsday story on the fire.
Before that, the last serious fire at the track broke out in 1983, when a horse died and another was badly hurt. In June of 1952, 21 horses and a man were killed in a fire at Belmont. Three months later, another fire at the track killed 23 horses.
A 1917 fire killed 28 horses. Installation of sprinkler system track barns started in the 1960s.
Other Deadly Fires at Belmont Park
- 1999 — Three racehorses die when a fire sweeps through Barn No. 8's receiving stable.
- 1986 — Forty-four racehorses and a workhorse die after a fire ignites in a barn.
- 1983 — A barn fire kills one horse and severely injures another.
- 1952 — Two separate stable fires kill a total of 44 horses
- 1917 — A fire kills 28 horses.