08/04/2002 11:00PM

Barn fire toll at 32 horses

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Thirty-two horses were confirmed dead as of Monday, the result of a fire that destroyed two barns on the Woodbine backstretch early Sunday morning.

The blaze destroyed Barns 7 and 7A, which housed a total of 122 horses. William Hiscott, a fire investigator with the office of the fire marshall, said that the cause of the blaze was still under investigation. Hiscott would not reveal the exact point of origin of the fire, which began just before 3 a.m. in Barn 7.

The barn area remained off limits Monday, surrounded by yellow police tape, as firefighters began removing 29 dead horses from the rubble. Two other horses died at the nearby University of Guelph veterinary clinic, where several injured horses were shipped. One horse was euthanized at Woodbine on Monday.

The 17 stable workers who lived in the barns all have been accounted for.

Hiscott said that 30 fire trucks were on the scene at the height of the blaze and that two firefighters were injured when they were kicked by horses.

The trainers hardest hit by the fire were Steve Owens and Danny O'Callaghan, of Barn 7.

Owens lost all 14 of his horses, including former 2-year-old champion Highland Legacy and stakes-caliber Legal Heir and Val de Dash.

"Everything we had built around in our breeding programs was in there," said Owens, who owned in part five of the horses.

O'Callaghan lost 13 horses, including the two who were euthanized at Guelph and the one euthanized at the track. Ten of his horses were rescued.

"Some of those will probably never make it to the races," O'Callaghan said, because of smoke inhalation or injuries suffered in the fire.

Saratoga Prince, a stakes-placed 6-year-old horse, was one of four horses trained by Earl Barnett that died in Barn 7.

Oddly, the only previous fatal stable fire at Woodbine, which came on July 10, 1990, began in Barn 7A. That fire, which was nowhere near the scope of Sunday's, claimed the lives of six horses.

The barns are H-shaped, with stalls for 32 horses on each side. Offices, sleeping quarters, and tack rooms are in the adjoining corridors.

The barns, built in 1955, are constructed of wood with steel roofs. The stalls have cement block walls, with the majority containing some drywall.

Cliff Hopmans, who has 25 horses in Barn 7A, reported one casualty but said the toll would have been much higher had it not been for the actions of Ernest Tambwe, who was one of the first to raise the alarm.

"He's a refugee from Zaire who started walking hots for me a couple of months ago," said Hopmans.

"He was living in my office. He smelled the smoke and called 911. Then he went around getting the horses out of their stalls. He probably saved 30 or 40 horses' lives."

Tambwe, 38, was released from Etobicoke General Hospital Sunday evening but had returned Monday to undergo additional tests.

Hugh Mitchell, senior vice president of racing for Woodbine, said Monday that the cost of replacing the two barns probably would run to about $3 million.

Racing resumed Monday after Sunday's card was canceled. Sunday's feature, the Seagram Cup, will be run as originally carded on Wednesday evening's program

The canceled races were offered and redrawn as part of a makeup program Thursday, which had been scheduled as a dark day.