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Terranovas provide home away from home for Bob Baffert

Tonya and John Terranova host the Triple Crown

Tonya and John Terranova host the Triple Crown challenger American Pharoah at their barn at Belmont Park Race Track in Elmont June 4, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Meet John Terranova II and his wife, Tonja, the personable managers of the Triple Crown Hotel on Belmont Park's backstretch. The Syosset residents are hosting Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah this week and taking the commotion in stride.

"It's nothing to worry about," John Terranova said. "Lots more people and lots more action, but it's all good."

The Terranovas go way back with Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert. John, 44, has known him since 1991, when Terranova moved to California to train. Tonja, 45, grew up in California and met Baffert in the mid-80s, "when I was 17 or 18."

For 20 years, they've accommodated hundreds of horses Baffert sent from California or Kentucky to race at Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct.

"This is business as usual for us," John Terranova said outside his Barn 1. "Since we moved back east in '93, whenever Bob shipped in, his horses stayed with us, and vice versa when we send ours out of town."

Terranova's stakes winners include Fanny Freud, Gander, Laragh and Negligee.

For the Terranovas, racing is in the blood. John's father, John, owned horses while his son grew up in Syosset. Tonja's best friends in childhood were Summer and April Mayberry, daughters of big-time California trainer Brian Mayberry.

The Terranovas' kids are horse girls, too. Tonja said Paulina, 14, "does equitation and travels quite a bit." Giana, 9, also rides.

"I fell in love with the racetrack when I was 15," Tonja said. "I started grooming one horse for Brian, then gradually worked my way up to assistant. By the time I was 18 or 19, I was traveling all over the country with his horses."

She knew Baffert long before he became world-famous. "Bob's a great guy, and so good for the fans," Tonja said. "He and [his wife] Jill are so nice to us."

The Terranovas take good care of them, too. Tonja went above and beyond the call of duty for Baffert in November 2000, saddling Cigar Mile winner El Corredor at Aqueduct while pregnant with Paulina.

The Terranovas' reconstructed barn is twice its former size, and they moved in only a few weeks ago. It's spacious and spiffy, with bright yellow walls. Baffert said Pharoah never had stayed in such a nice place.

When the New York Racing Association began redoing some Belmont barns, Tonja said they applied for one, and senior director of racing operations Martin Panza gave the OK.

Baffert's old Kentucky home, Barn 33 at Churchill Downs, can't match the Terranovas' new digs. The atmosphere there was just as frenzied during Derby week, when John stabled El Kabeir there. Like Pharoah, El Kabeir ("The Boss" in Arabic) is owned by Ahmed Zayat.

Only a Triple Crown bid can match the hoopla of Derby week. John, Tonja, Paulina and Giana were excited about seeing their versatile gray colt make the Derby. John's first Derby runner, Falling Sky, was 19th in 2013. Unfortunately, El Kabeir was scratched the day before this year's race because of a bruised left front foot.

Tonja said Paulina understood but Giana was upset. "Giana kept saying, 'If he's perfect tomorrow, can he still run?' The next day, Giana was OK with it, and they were in the winner's circle with American Pharoah. It was cute watching them run around in their Derby dresses."

El Kabeir is hardy, but thoroughbreds are so fragile that no injury or illness is a surprise.

"He'd run nine times and made it through a brutal winter at Aqueduct. Then that happened," John Terranova said. "It was disappointing, but fortunately it was nothing serious. The timing of it was such that we couldn't run him. He's gotten a good rest. He'll be bigger and stronger, and we're hoping to get him back late in the summer."

John and Tonja are coping well with the wild scene at their workplace, located about 50 yards from Hempstead Turnpike. "It's very different," he said, "but fun to be part of. And we have plenty to do taking care of our own horses."

By Monday, American Pharoah and the Triple Crown circus will have moved on, and the only heavy traffic will be on the road.

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