This holiday season, Frank Rende Jr. is conjuring up every ounce of his faith, work ethic and positive energy to pull through a recent family disaster.
On Nov. 29, after celebrating Thanksgiving, Rende, his wife Debbie, and their three children, Nicholas, 19, Vincent, 9, and Sofia, 8, were suddenly awakened just after 4:30 a.m. and forced to flee their burning home in Ringwood, N.J.
The Rende's youngest son, Vincent, is credited with saving their lives by waking everybody up. Most of their possessions were destroyed and the house is uninhabitable due to the fire damage. Their insurance does not cover all of their needs, such as repairs, furniture, appliances and clothes. Donations as little as one dollar can be made anonymously at http://www.gofundme.com/on the Rende Family Fire Fund page.
"To see the house my dad built with his own two hands in 1959 with smoke coming out it was more than a shock,” said Rende. "The origin guy discovered there was a tiny crack in the chimney. Over 60 years the clay tiles had disintegrated by water because there was no cap. It smoldered for hours without setting off the smoke alarms. Then, to hear the crackling from the flames was just devastating.
"We're lucky to be alive, because if it wasn't for my boy we'd all be dead,” Rende continued. "When I opened up the bedroom door and saw the smoke I knew we only had a few minutes left. My oldest son, Nicholas, sleeps like a rock, and I was so sleepy after eating turkey. I was so out of it I fell down the stairs when I got up. I couldn't believe it. It was really a bad dream.”
However, Rende will be forever thankful for his heroic little boy.
"It was a miracle!” he exclaimed. "Thank God my son Vincent is a light sleeper. You can just snap your fingers to wake him up. I used to think it was a negative when he was really younger and we had to tip toe around, but thankfully things are going in a positive direction for us now.
"Right now, this situation takes up most of my time,” Rende admits. "My wife works as a waitress. It's been so stressful, frustrating and inconvenient, but we're lucky to still be here. We're hanging in there, one day at a time, temporarily living in a one-room motel in Greenwood Lake, N.Y. I had to pull my kids out of Delaware schools. I've been driving my kids to school every day up here and the teachers have been great.”
Rende plans to repair his home in a few months and return to his first love of harness racing.
"My immediate agenda is to clean out the house and try to save some of our possessions. We're going to rebuild and I'm going back to training horses. My sister, Debbie (same first name as Frank's wife) is stabled in Delaware, and I'm trying to help her as much as I can. I've been a horse person since I was born. I sat in a sulky when I was five. I started driving in races when I was 18. I always wanted to be the next John Campbell. I'm 50, but I feel like a young 50.
"There aren't many hardcore harness horsemen like my father (Frank Rende) around anymore. He was born in Hawthorne, N.J. in 1934. When we grew up we would train one horse all day to get him right. Now you just throw a harness on them because they're so well bred. The breeding has come so far now.
"My grandparents were immigrants seeking a better life. They came from Italy, literally off the boat. My grandfather loved horses. He rode horses to his job as a telephone pole climber in the twenties and thirties. My parents rode horses on Route 208 in Bergen County when it was a dirt road.
"My dad started with ponies in the fifties, then got a couple of harness horses. We raced at Green Mountain Park in Vermont. He trucked a horse to Seminole Downs in Florida to get his ‘A' license. He got lucky and bought a filly for $1,500. She made $200,000 in the early eighties because he could keep her trotting. He excelled because of his horsemanship.”
Frank Rende and his sister Debbie got on a roll at the Big M with a rags-to-riches pacer named Just Like Sam back in 2001.
"We've only had one horse good enough to compete at the Big M. Just Like Sam actually won five or six races there. I had rescued a horse for $300, nursed him back for a year and he ended up with heart issues. The guy who had his brother called me, and he tried to sell him to me, a son of Spirited Style. I told him I preferred Nobleland Sam as a sire, so he sold me Just Like Sam for $7,000, and the horse made over $350,000 for us.
"Having that horse was my second biggest thrill behind driving a trotting filly Hi Pocahontas to victory in the Maryland Sire Stake final. I came first up falling into the two hole behind Eddie Davis and got up in the last fifty feet. I never raced with the whip. I coaxed her like a baby, saying ‘C'mon honey, good girl!” all the way down the stretch, getting up at 60-1. The best part is my dad trained her, my sister jogged and groomed her, and my dream of catch driving was realized.
"Unfortunately, my dad died in a race about a year later at Rosecroft. He just slumped over in the bike and expired. I couldn't believe it. I had just talked to him the night before. Thank goodness I didn't watch the race and I never want to see it. He was 66 and still very active. At least God gave us that time to pull together as a family and win a $50,000 stakes race with a $1,200 filly! I thank God everyday for that.
"Now my son, Vincent, Frank Rende, Sr.'s grandson, is our hero, and we're pulling together again.” (Meadowlands)