N.J.’s coronavirus outbreak might have began at a Yonkers racetrack. Horsemen are nonetheless unravelling the myste – NJ.com

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Pearly Allen’s brush with death started with a fist bump.

The harness racing driver swears he contracted the coronavirus when he was congratulated by a man who “looked deathly sick” March 5 at Yonkers Raceway. The fist bump came moments after Allen steered his 13-year-old horse to a surprising triumph.

“That win,” he said, “came at a hell of a cost.”

Two weeks later, Allen was isolated in a sealed-off hospital room for COVID-19 patients. He heard “the biggest scream” of his life late one night and watched as medical workers shoved a ventilator tube down the throat of a man they were wheeling down the hallway.

“The next morning, the police wheeled that person out in a makeshift coffin,” Allen said. “I sat there that night in the bed and looked at my hands, and the skin was so shiny that it looked like every funeral I had ever been to.

“As I laid there alone, I thought to myself: ‘Would I be the next to be wheeled down the hallway?’”

It’s a chilling chain reaction right out of a movie like “Contagion” or “Outbreak.” Many of New Jersey’s early coronavirus cases, including Allen’s, can be traced to Yonkers Raceway, harness racing and a handful of days in early March, interviews with five people connected to the sport revealed to NJ Advance Media.

The Westchester County track likely was ground zero for a cluster of infections that resulted in four of the earliest recorded deaths in New Jersey, people with strong links to the facility said. It also was tied to two deaths outside the state and at least 12 other cases in the outbreak’s first month.

Three weeks after a Yonkers racing official became the first man from New Jersey to die of the coronavirus, horsemen continue to debate how widespread COVID-19 became in the harness racing industry.

“I don’t think anybody has any doubt it started at Yonkers,” said Paul Minore, a horse owner and trainer from Allentown. “That was a hot spot for sure. Nobody is blaming Yonkers for it. Nobody knew what was going on at the time.

“But there’s no doubt some people had it at Yonkers in early March, and it’s spread here just like it has in a lot of other places people work around the country.”

John Brennan, a Little Ferry resident who was a fixture at Yonkers Raceway, became the first New Jersey resident to die from the coronavirus on March 10. Four members of a family with deep ties to harness racing — Rita Fusco-Jackson, 55, of Freehold; Carmine Fusco, of Bath, Pa.; Grace Fusco, 73, of Freehold; and Vincent Fusco, 53, of Manalapan — then died over a six-day period in mid-March.

There are also questions surrounding the March 14 death of a 74-year-old man who lived on the Yonkers grounds after a short battle with COVID-19-like symptoms.

“We had the tragedy with John (Brennan) and the Fuscos,” said Mike Forte, a New York racing stalwart. “Yonkers is a small barn area, and there’s maybe about 12 or 14 people working right now. Apparently no one who’s here now has had it. But other fellas have had it.”

State health officials have said the Fusco family deaths were connected to Brennan, who had an office in the heart of the facility where the Yonkers horsemen would congregate before races. Joe Faraldo, the president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, said Brennan last worked March 2 as the track’s racing secretary. MGM Resorts International, which owns the historic racetrack, closed Yonkers on March 10 — the same day Brennan died — and asked anyone who worked with Brennan to self-quarantine.

While no one is blaming Yonkers Raceway for the outbreak among the racing community, some remain unconvinced transmission of those early cases occurred at the track.

Faraldo was at the harness racing facility the same week in early March, but said there is no “foundation in fact” that the track was ground zero. He insists his bout with the coronavirus has nothing to do with the raceway and noted that Yonkers borders New Rochelle, where a cluster of COVID-19 cases around the same time.

“People keep calling it an invisible disease,” Faraldo said. “You can be sitting with someone who is asymptomatic and pick up the germ from them. All you need is one cough that seems to be nothing out of the ordinary, and you’re sick.

“I don’t want to propagate Yonkers as the issue at all.”

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Pearly Allen, an Allentown-based harness racing driver, stands next to one of his standardbred horses in 2019.

On any given race night, grooms lead the horses to the saddling paddock, where an official checks the tattoo on each horse’s neck to confirm its identity. Another person hands out the numbers to the trainers, who then saddle the horses, while giving last-minute instruction to the drivers. The paddock judge checks to see if there are any changes before the horses trot to the one-half-mile dirt track.

That level of intimacy, multiple horsemen said, could be a major contributing factor to the spread of the virus.

“All those people come to you face-to-face,” Minore said. “You definitely have contact with a lot of people in the paddock, in the racing offices, in the locker rooms.”

The intimacy extends to track laborers and the horse owners, all of whom are prone to mingle in the paddock area. Even Faraldo, a Queens, New York lawyer who has presided over that state’s governing body for standardbred racing since 1980, gets in on the action once in a while at Yonkers (he drove a trotter in an amateur race prior to the one Allen won on March 5).

NJ Advance Media previously reported John Curtin, a longtime trainer, attributes both a March 2 visit to Brennan’s office and a dinner with two Brennan associates, who later became sick, as the reason he contracted the coronavirus last month.

Jason Bartlett, the winningest driver at Yonkers this season, told News 12 Westchester he is recovering after recently testing positive for the coronavirus. Bartlett said he experienced mild symptoms, but decided to get tested after having contact with Brennan on Feb. 28.

The spread of the illness was hardly a secret in the industry, resulting in a Meadowlands announcement on March 11 that horsemen who had recently been in the Yonkers paddock would not be permitted at the East Rutherford racing facility for two weeks. The Meadowlands canceled live racing the following day, and shuttered March 16 as a result of the state’s ban on public gatherings.

Paul Fusco said both of his brothers who died of COVID-19 were at Yonkers in the first week of March, but neither had direct contact with Brennan in the days before he was hospitalized on March 6.

“I was there that Thursday (March 5), and I know John wasn’t there that day for the racing,” said Fusco, a longtime harness racing trainer. “We suffered a great loss in losing John. Forget about my family for a minute. John was beloved in the horse industry.”

The last time Vinnie Fusco was at Yonkers was March 3, Paul Fusco said. Carmine Fusco raced at Yonkers twice a week, but wasn’t there until March 6, a night when Brennan was not in attendance, Paul Fusco added.

Carmine Fusco “never really hung with anybody besides the owners,” he said. “He went in, did his business and left. He wasn’t upstairs where John would’ve been. Vinnie and John were good friends, but can I pinpoint exactly where they all got it from? No. I don’t think you can.”

The first sign that something was wrong with Allen came March 19.

It was two weeks after he piloted a horse named Wygant Prince to a three-length victory in an $8,000 amateur race. The now fateful fist bump came moments after the win.

The 62-year old Allentown resident woke up that Thursday morning to do his routine of 200 pushups and 100 squats before heading to a nearby farm to tend to his horses.

But he could barely manage the workout.

“I thought I was being a sap,” Allen said. “But later that day, me and my wife were both sick. We were just exhausted.”

Allen and his wife, Pam, were both diagnosed with double pneumonia at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton. The couple tested positive for the coronavirus during their stay, Allen said.

Allen was hospitalized for six days. He experienced high fevers, chest pain and general fatigue. Pamela Allen was in the hospital for eight days. She experienced the same symptoms as her husband, but was weakened by a blood infection that resulted in sepsis.

His “absolute worst night” was a Monday at 3:30 in the morning, when he heard that stranger’s scream.

“I was certain those sounds were the last ones he’d ever make,” Allen said.

Alone in his room, there was plenty of time to retrace his steps. Allen heard what had happened to Brennan and the Fusco family. He knew several other horsemen had been struggling with symptoms of COVID-19. But Allen kept returning to that fist bump with a racing official who was noticeably ill in the Yonkers paddock.

“It’s the only place I came in contact with anybody that had this,” he said.

Allen credits the drug hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment, as one of the factors that helped his recovery. He also believes he did some miraculous healing of his own, opening his lungs by singing songs like Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin Rosie” and Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.”

“I’m not a great singer,” Allen said. “But it made me feel better.”

Ten days after leaving the hospital, Allen said Friday he and Pam aren’t fully recovered. He still has the body sweats and recurring nightmares from his near-death experience. It makes for sleepless nights, he said.

“You get out of the hospital thinking you’re better, but that’s not the case,” he said. “It’s going to be a long trail to recovery.”

The stories of the men at Yonkers echo those of many others throughout this crisis, marked by confusion, delayed testing results and no clear answers.

Faraldo fell sick around the same time Brennan, his right-hand man at Yonkers, died.

He soaked his bed sheets with sweat five times when his fever spiked to 103 degrees. On March 9, he checked in with his primary-care doctor, who diagnosed him with the flu. But Faraldo opted for a second opinion and was tested March 11 for the coronavirus. The initial test didn’t come back until March 28, but a second test turned up positive on March 16 during a stay at North Well Health Care in Lake Success, N.Y.

“I had all the symptoms they talk about, except I didn’t have any underlying physical problems,” he said. “So I’m pretty sure I’m out of the woods.”

While Faraldo is one of harness racing’s most influential figures, Eclee Scott was one of the hundreds of laborers who make the racetrack run. He worked as a trainer for decades before settling in as a groom for Forte in recent years at Yonkers.

Nicknamed “Chubby” by the horsemen around the track, Scott died March 14. He was 74.

“Talk about a guy who was at the barn every day,“ Forte said. “The only time he left was to go to the diner to eat.”

The assumption around the track has been that Scott died from complications of COVID-19, Forte said. He doesn’t know if that’s true.

“He had symptoms,” Forte said. “And then he went to the doctor and was told it was the flu, when other people were getting tested for (the coronavirus). He didn’t work for about five days. But he did live in a room at the track.”

Forte filled in for Scott the day he died. He checked in on him before leaving for home, only to receive a text message later that day that Scott had died.

Forte said he spoke with the medical examiner, who reported that Scott died of congestive heart failure.

“It wasn’t a heart attack — (the examiner) said his heart was weak,” he said. “It could’ve been weakened by the flu or whatever virus he had. He was tested (for the coronavirus). We never got a result of that test.”

Attempts to interview two members of Scott’s family were unsuccessful.

“The fact is he’s gone and it doesn’t really matter what he died of,” Forte said. “It’s just sad. He was a Mr. Harness Racing kind of guy.”

Paul Fusco remains in a self-imposed quarantine in his Monmouth County home two weeks after he lost three siblings and his mother to the coronavirus.

While another brother remains hospitalized, Fusco and his immediate family are in good health and haven’t shown signs of the virus.

“It’s sad to say this, but I hadn’t seen my sister, my mom and my brothers for three weeks before they passed,” said Fusco, who was at Yonkers on March 5 and watched one of his trainees finish third behind Allen’s horse in the mile trot.

He can’t pinpoint exactly how or why the virus wreaked havoc on his extended family, but knows that his mother, Grace; his brothers, Carmine and Vinnie; and his sister, Rita, had spent a lot of time together in early March.

“They hung together. They ate together. They were like a normal family — all very close,” Fusco said. “So it makes sense that they would get it once one person got infected. It can spread through easily.”

Like his fellow horsemen, Fusco is concerned about the industry in general. Many owners and trainers can’t afford a prolonged suspension in racing, he said.

“There’s no racing, which means there’s no money coming in, and we’re all bleeding,” Fusco said. “I inherited six horses from my brothers, so now I have 22 here. They still have to eat. They’re athletes, so they still need to get trained. It’s costing me about $4,000 a week to cover (the expenses for) these horses, and we’re tightening the belt as much as possible.

“It’s a tough virus. Nobody knows anything about it, and we’re going to have to wait until someone figures out a solution for it.’’

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Keith Sargeant may be reached at ksargeant@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KSargeantNJ.

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