Valentine’s Day will start like any other recent Thursday for Nick Vaccarezza. He’ll arise well before dawn and head straight to Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla., where he will report for work at the Chad Brown stable and commence checking temperatures stall to stall.
What began as an internship with Brown last summer at Saratoga has become a full-time job for Vaccarezza, whose long-term plan upon graduating from high school last June was to attend the University of Kentucky with an eye toward a career in Thoroughbred racing. But at 19, Vaccarezza feels like he is right where he belongs, thriving on the daily routine of the large Brown organization and chance to handle some of the sport’s finest equine athletes.
Only this Thursday won’t be like any other Thursday, because Vaccarezza’s high school was Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Fla.
They will be all over the news this week, the young people like Nick Vaccarezza who emerged from the killings at Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14, 2018. They will be given their moments in mainstream media to deliver pleas for gun-safety reform, while offering emotional recollections of their 14 friends and the three respected educators who lost their lives in a six-minute attack by a former Stoneman Douglas student armed with a legally purchased AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
Vaccarezza was not in the school building where the killing took place. When the shots began, he became obsessed with finding his younger brother Mike. Together they raced to safety at the far end of the property.
“Thank God I didn’t have to see everything. I just heard everything,” Nick said a week after the tragedy. “Even that has me shook. The main thing is I made it out and my brother made it out, and God bless the 17 lives that were lost that day because of one kid’s demonic actions.”
Vaccarezza lost his close friend Joaquin “Guac” Oliver to the gunman. Another close friend, Sam Zeif, was an eyewitness to the bloodshed. Zeif’s passionate appeal to a White House audience set the tone for the “Never Again” movement spearheaded by classmates David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez.
“Mentally, I’m a pretty tough kid,” Vaccarezza said from home this week. “I’m sure I’ll go somewhere around here on that day. I’ll try and stay as strong and as positive as I can.”
Beyond the grief for the loss of his schoolmates – including four from Vaccarezza’s graduating class – he feels cheated out of what should have been the crowning senior year of his high school experience.
“Our posse, we kind of ran the school the last couple of years,” he said, warming to the memory. Oliver was part of that posse.
“You had no worries inside or outside of school,” Vaccarezza said. “You were supposed to go out on top. And then that happened. It was a bad way to graduate.”
On his birthday last December, Vaccarezza posted the simple message:
“I’m blessed to be 19.”
“And it’s not just about the shooting,” Vaccarezza said. “I could fall asleep tonight and not wake up tomorrow. I’m blessed every day I get to wake up and go to work in the morning. “
Nick is the son of Carlo Vaccarezza, an owner and trainer of Thoroughbreds whose work on behalf of horse and horsemen’s welfare has earned the family a respected place in Florida’s racing world. Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Little Mike has been their flagship star.
As the news of the Stoneman Douglas shooting broke loose, one of Carlo’s first calls of concern came from Chad Brown.
“It was a terrible day,” Brown said. “After he knew his sons were safe, Carlo reacted by giving a fundraiser for the families of the victims at his restaurant. That’s the kind of generous person he is.”
A few months later, Carlo asked Brown if his son could intern for the barn at Saratoga.
“He’s got a great work ethic he’s been taught from a young age,” Brown said. “He earned the right to be a full-time member of our team.”
Vaccarezza did a semester at the UofK last fall and is continuing his college courses in business administration with an online program. But there’s little doubt where his ambitions lie.
“I’ve been around horses for about 12 years now, and I know I can build off of that,” he said. “I’ve already seen a real progression in my knowledge from working for Chad. The best thing is, he’s allowing me to learn his system that has been so successful. When I’m on my own, I’ll know what works.
“I could be the normal college kid out partying and drinking,” Vaccarezza added. “But I’m in bed by 9:30 and up around 4:30. I’ve given up the college life – I guess you could call it the childish life – because when I’m older I want to be successful.
“I’ll ask my friends going to college what they’re going to do, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I think I’ll change my major,’ ” Vaccarezza said. “I just laugh. Here I am with my plans almost set in stone. But if your heart wants to do something and you have the perseverance to work and to learn, there’s nothing better than to do what you love to do.”
And he’s blessed to be 19.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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