Just 15 minutes after the final race Wednesday at Saratoga Race Course, lightning struck a large tree and sent dangerously large chunks of wood flying into the still-crowded backyard portion of the grounds.
The falling debris destroyed a dozen picnic tables, damaged the Backyard Dogs n’ Brews tent and littered the grounds. Yet not one person was injured.
“You can replace a tree. You can replace a picnic table. You can replace a hot dog stand. You cannot replace a human life,” said New York Racing Association spokesman John Durso. “Clearly God was looking out for all of us tonight.”
Daily Gazette photographer Patrick Dodson was working at the track Wednesday when he heard the lightning strike just after 5:30 p.m.
“It sounded like a bomb went off,” he said. “It looked like it, too. There was a huge explosion out of the corner of my eye, and the tree just split and collapsed.”
A woman who said she was a nurse ran toward the scene to see if everyone was OK. Within minutes, several dozen NYRA workers started assessing damage and clearing debris with chainsaws and front-end loaders.
The tree that was struck was near a fence in the backyard, not far from the Big Red Spring.
The incident won’t affect operations at the race course today, Durso said.
“It’s really a credit to employees here at NYRA how quickly they responded and cleared the area,” he said. “They deserve an enormous amount of credit for their professionalism.”
The lightning strike was part of a severe thunderstorm that moved across the Capital Region early Wednesday evening. In the Stillwater-Mechanicville area, 78 lightning strikes were recorded in a five-minute span, according to the National Weather Service in Albany.
“That’s a lot,” said meteorologist Hugh Johnson. “That is a tremendous amount of lightning.”
The temperature reached 91 degrees Wednesday, but humidity raised the heat index to 97. The evening storm system also brought rain, large wind gusts and a few reports of one-inch hail in Rensselaer County.
The storms ushered in cooler weather, with today’s forecast calling for partly sunny skies and a high of 79 degrees.
“The dew point will be lower, too, so it will feel a lot more comfortable out there,” Johnson said.