08/04/2002 11:00PM

Fire's toll hits trainers Owens, O'Callaghan hardest

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - A somber group, composed of trainers, owners, and other denizens of the Woodbine backstretch, were maintaining a sorrowful vigil Monday.

The objects of their attention were the charred remains of Barns 7 and 7A, which were the residence of 122 horses and 17 stable workers when all hell broke loose just before 3 a.m. last Sunday.

Monday morning, firefighters were going about their macabre task of sifting through the rubble for the remains of horses.

Among the onlookers were trainers Danny O'Callaghan and Steve Owens, who have been left reeling following the fire which killed 32 horses.

O'Callaghan, who runs a public stable, had 23 horses in Barn 7, 13 of whom lost their lives.

Most are claiming horses, and the names of many may be unfamiliar to outsiders, but they are the bread and butter of the O'Callaghan operation.

Asgoodasitgets, a 3-year-old filly claimed for $40,000 just last Friday, was freed from her stall but later had to be euthanized.

Quoit Effair, Max the Great, Billbrewster, Snow Kipper, and Cyber War were among the 10 O'Callaghan-trained horses who died in the barn. Another three of his horses had to euthanized following the fire.

Wild Romp, a 2-year-old filly who was claimed for $50,000 last Saturday, escaped but was injured in a spill during the ensuing bedlam.

"We're not sure how serious it is," said O'Callaghan, who has sent Wild Romp to nearby Gardiner Farm.

O'Callaghan, while clearly shaken, had high praise for those who are standing by him in his time of trouble.

"People are great," he said. "It's a good community; everybody is behind us. People are generous in their offerings. I sure wish to thank them.

"The kids that got a lot of the horses out, they deserve all the credit in the world."

Steve Owens lost his entire 14-horse outfit, including homebreds Highland Legacy and Legal Heir.

Highland Legacy was Canada's champion 2-year-old male in 2000 but had failed to recapture that form in subsequent campaigns.

Legal Heir, also 4 years old, had won the last race here Saturday in impressive fashion, with his time for the seven-furlong turf allowance just one-fifth of a second off the track record. He was nominated to the Play the King Handicap.

Val de Dash, an 8-year-old who was coming off a smart victory over top-level allowance company, and Guest Appearance, a 3-year-old who won his first career start competing under maiden special weight terms here last Wednesday, also were among the Owens casualties. Both horses were owned by Nancy Guest.

Red Satan, a 2-year-old whom Owens sent out to score impressively at first asking here July 14, was among several of the stable's young and promising horses who perished.

"Some of the horses were insured, and some weren't," said Owens. "We're just going to have to sit back, and see what happens."

Trainer Earl Barnett's four casualties included the talented sprinter Saratoga Prince and Chivas on Ice, who won his maiden for $32,000 recently.

Trainer Cliff Hopmans lost one horse, the maiden Mixed Blessing, who had been entered Sunday.

Trainers Eric Bauer, Mac Benson, and Jerry Meyer all were based in the affected barns but suffered no loss of equine life. None escaped unscathed, however, as all equipment, furnishings, personal effects, and memorabilia located in their rooms and offices was destroyed.

The fire was an uncomfortable case of deja vu for both Mac Benson and Conrad Belaire, who lost horses in Woodbine's first fatal barn fire back in July 1990.

Benson still is located in Barn 7A, where the first fire broke out. Belaire now works with trainer Mort Hardy in Barn 6A, which is located across the road and had to be evacuated Sunday. No injuries were reported.

HBPA helping displaced stable workers

The Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association has stepped up to the plate for the 17 stable workers who lost their living quarters in the fire.

"We took all the grooms and hotwalkers shopping Sunday, and bought them new clothes," said Nick Koukos, executive director of the HBPA, noting that the bill had come to about $5,000.

"We also gave them money, as many lost their wallets, money, and identification. We'll help them with deal with replacing those lost documents.

"And we put them up in a nearby motel on a temporary basis, and are investigating bringing in some trailers as a temporary solution.

"We also have a fire and casualty insurance policy, and once we have all the figures we'll put in a claim."

The HBPA also has called in trauma counselors, under its Employee Assistance Program.

"They'll be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help people deal with this very traumatic experience," said Koukos.