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Lightning strikes tree at Saratoga racetrack

People look at damage moments after lightning struck

People look at damage moments after lightning struck a large tree on the grounds of Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs shortly after the last race of the day, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Credit: AP / Patrick Dodson

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The sound track was muffled hoof beats and the loud breathing of galloping thoroughbreds. An exercise rider sang to her mount as she urged him past the finish line. A cool breeze made a sunny morning even more pleasant for three Kentuckians watching workouts at Saratoga's training track.

Like the Land of Oz, things can change in a hurry at the Spa, and the day before, just across the street, Mother Nature turned into the Wicked Witch of the West. At about 5:40 p.m. Wednesday, 20 minutes after the last race, lightning splintered a 100-foot oak that stood in the backyard 60 yards from the historic Big Red Spring. Fortunately, there were no injuries. The area had cleared out minutes earlier, so no one was in harm's way of the wooden fragments that shot 100 feet in every direction.

No more than 50 yards from the deafening blast, this reporter got up close and personal with a savage force of nature. Boom! After an involuntary yell, it took a few seconds to process what I'd heard and what I was seeing. The gut feeling was more awe than shock, with fear or butterflies surprisingly absent. After dictating a brief account to a Newsday editor, I had dinner with a friend, and I joked that he had come close to dining alone. Later I called my wife, Jean, in Setauket and told her she had almost gotten rich off the double-indemnity provision in my life insurance policy.

The tree still stood, although branches and chunks of wood had wrecked about a dozen picnic tables and the plastic tent covering Backyard Dogs 'N Brews. Shards hung at weird angles from trees, and exiting fans outside the chain link fence snapped photos with cellphones and picked up pieces as souvenirs.

John Durso Jr., the New York Racing Association's recently appointed director of media and communications, said the bolt from the blue sounded like an earthquake. Late Thursday morning, Durso was on his way to "around my 12th interview" about the incident. "When I came to Saratoga," he said, "I expected to be talking about horse racing."

Two hours before Thursday's 12:25 p.m. first post, the tree, debris and ruined picnic tables were gone. A cleanup crew raked and smoothed the area where the tree had stood, perhaps for a century. The hot dog stand was open, and partying in the backyard resumed. All was well, with Saratoga again the horseplayer's happiest place on Earth.

Notes & quotes:Todd Pletcher, a heavy favorite to get his fifth consecutive Saratoga training title and 11th overall, leads the standings with six wins. Tied for second with three are Michael Hushion, Graham Motion and Bruce Brown . . . Defending riding champion Javier Castellano has nine wins, two ahead of John Velazquez, the Spa's all-time leader, and three up on Jose Ortiz . . . Mike Repole, who won the Saratoga owners' trophy in 2010, 2011 and 2012, has three victories, tied with Chester Broman Sr. and his wife, Mary.

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