Death shakes drivers
Screams pour from grandstand after accidentBy MIKE FINNEY and JACK IRELAND
The News Journal
HARRINGTON -- It was a sound like nothing Dr. Jay Baldwin had ever heard before at a harness racing track.
Usually, he said, when there is a crash in a harness race, the crowd grows silent and all that is heard is the booming voice of the public address announcer.
However, from inside the paddock at Harrington Raceway on Monday night, all that Baldwin heard during the middle of the first race just after 5:30 p.m. were shrill screams pouring down from the grandstand.
Baldwin, the track veterinarian, immediately knew something was wrong.
His worst fears were realized just moments later when he arrived on the scene to help paramedics tend to driver Hal Belote, whose horse Atenothnbutdscootr stumbled and fell in the second turn, just after the half-mile mark.
Drivers Steve Warrington and Brandon Givens were right behind Belote at the time of the fall and could not avoid him.
"Hal's horse just went down, and the next thing I knew, I was tumbling over top of all the rest," Givens said. "Horses were spiraling all around me and I was able to crawl away a little bit. I knew right away my leg was broken. I looked toward Hal and Steve, but they both seemed to be unconscious. Neither one said anything. It seemed like it took the ambulance five to 10 minutes to get out there.
"I was screaming and cussing and could feel the pain in my leg."
Belote, 51, was pronounced dead at Milford Memorial Hospital, becoming the first driver to be killed at a harness racing facility in Delaware.
Givens and Warrington were listed in good condition, a spokesperson for Christiana Hospital said Tuesday afternoon.
"I was following Hal, and his horse made a bad step," Warrington said. "Hal hollered 'look out' and he went down within two seconds. I just couldn't have pulled my horse up that fast, but I saw it all happen in front of me."
Warrington said he was concerned about the horse Belote was driving.
"As we got into the turn, I looked at his horse and thought he just doesn't seem to be stepping right," Warrington said. "I was thinking, 'I'll keep an eye on him and maybe if it continues, I'll get out three wide.' I wish I had done that. I just never got the chance. I feel really bad about losing Hal."
Belote was in the lead on the outside as four rows of horses ran side-by-side off the second turn on Monday. That was when Atenothnbutdscootr stumbled and sent the driver onto the track near the outside rail.
Warrington and Givens, tucked right behind Belote's sulky, could not slow down. They both suffered leg injures in the crash.
Givens, a 19-year-old graduate of Seaford High, said he underwent two hours of surgery on Monday night to repair a compound fracture in his right leg.
"I will have pins in my leg for eight weeks and will have a cast put on after that," Givens said. "Of course, I will return to racing."
Givens was driving Build a Fire, a horse trained by his uncle, Charlie Tribbett. Givens said he was sitting last in the eight-horse field on the outside with Belote's horse in front of him.
Belote, of Williamstown, N.J., had won 1,986 races in his career. He earned his first career victory at Harrington in 1977 and eventually became one of the most respected drivers and trainers in the paddock.
Belote came from a family of harness racers. His father, John, died in November at age 74. His brother, Sammy, is also a harness driver and trainer who lives in the Harrington area.
"Actually, I knew Hal as good as I knew everybody else," said Givens. "The older horsemen are like uncles and the young like cousins. [Belote] always wanted to talk about baseball and sports with me. He liked to talk about pitching and how well his son was doing. Hal was a real nice man."
Hugh Gallagher, the administrator for the Delaware Harness Racing Commission, said nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy. He said all of the drivers involved had on the proper safety helmets and were wearing safety vests.
"It was just a freak -- and unfortunate -- accident," Gallagher said. "Track security did a good job of keeping all of the horsemen away from the accident scene and the track emergency crews did everything they could.
"It was just a bad step at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Gallagher did say that Monday's accident will prompt the commission to review safety procedures at Delaware race tracks.
Gallagher noted that the accident happened in the second turn -- on the opposite side of track from the paddock area. He suggested that one issue to be studied is where emergency response units should be positioned.
Gallagher estimated that emergency responders at Harrington were at the scene on Monday in about three minutes.
Delaware State Police spokesman Cpl. Jeff Oldham said police were investigating the incident as an industrial accident.
Meanwhile, drivers took their horses back onto the track at Harrington Raceway again on Tuesday night, but there was an obvious void.
"It's the worst. I've known Hal most of my life and that makes it real bad," said Warrington. "To all of us who have trained and driven against him, Hal was the most underrated horsemen on the circuit. Everybody liked his dry humor and his smile. I've seen a lot worse accidents and nobody gets hurt. You just never know.
Contact Mike Finney at 734-7945 or email@example.com
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