Updated on 09/16/2011 8:57AM

Casualties high in Woodbine stable fire

Email

ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Up to 30 horses were either dead or unaccounted for as of noon Sunday after a early-morning fire of yet-to-be determined origin raged through two barns on the Woodbine backstretch.

"At this stage, we don't know how many horses are dead," said David Willmot, president and CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group.

"Some horses are missing, and some have gone to Guelph (the veterinary clinic at the nearby University of Guelph, Ont.)."

The blaze totally demolished Barns 7 and 7A, which housed a total of 126 horses.

"Our security people were here within a minute," said Willmot, "and people came flooding out of the barns, to help.

"It's unbelievable how many horses were saved, thanks to the people of the backstretch, the security people, the fire department and the police department."

Collin Adams, vice-president of security for WEG, said the fire apparently started in Barn 7 at about 3 a.m. and progressed into the adjoining Barn 7A.

"The fire marshall's there right now," said Adams, at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, "and they're systematically going about their investigation."

The trainers hardest hit by the tragedy were Steve Owens and Danny O'Callaghan, of Barn 7, and Earl Barnett, of Barn 7A, whose stakes-placed Saratoga Prince was one of the confirmed casualties.

Ironically, the only previous fatal stable fire at 47-year-old Woodbine, on July 10, 1990, began in Barn 7A. That fire, which was nowhere near the scope of Sunday's, claimed the lives of five Thoroughbreds trained by Conrad Belaire and one trained by Mac Benson.

Benson still located in barn 7A with 28 horses, appeared to have escaped Sunday's inferno without any losses.

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 heroic actions of Ernest Twambe, who was one of the first to raise the alarm.

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

"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."

Twambe was in Etobicoke General Hospital Sunday morning, recovering from smoke inhalation.

Sunday's afternoon card was canceled, but racing was to resume with Monday's holiday program.

Sunday's canceled races will be offered and re-drawn as part of a make-up program Thursday, which had been scheduled as a dark day.