05/29/2003 12:00AM

Officials label barn fire arson


TORONTO, Ontario - A fire that caused the death of 34 horses and the destruction of two barns at Woodbine last Aug. 4 was deliberately set, said William Hiscott of the Ontario Fire Marshall's office on Thursday.

"The fire has been classified as incendiary," Hiscott said at a press conference at downtown Toronto Police headquarters. "It was set by design."

Hiscott, however, declined to reveal what details of the investigation led his department to classify the fire as arson or to identify the fire's exact point of origin.

"The police are still working on leads that are coming in," said Hiscott, "and things have slowed down now, so we're kind of coming forward again to see if we can get some more interest from the public as to what happened."

Sergeant Robert Gallant of Toronto Police Services, 23 division, is in charge of the arson investigation. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Hiscott said the conservative estimate of the damage caused by the fire was more than $4.5 million: $1.5 million for the buildings, $463,000 for the contents, and $2.58 million for horses.

Hugh Mitchell, senior vice president, racing, for the Woodbine Entertainment Group, expressed anger at the revelation that the fire was intentionally set.

"I feel somewhat like a victim," said Mitchell. "I'm relieved that the cause of the fire was not electrical or mechanical, but having said all of that, the fact of the matter is 34 horses perished in this very tragic fire and I'm angry at the individual or individuals who are responsible."

"In the meantime, we'll continue to roll out our fire safety procedures and practices and plans, that we have begun to implement."

Woodbine had announced a number of improved fire prevention policies after last year's fire, including banning the use of tack rooms and offices in barns as living quarters and cracking down on smoking in the stable areas.

A complete retrofitting of the original barns, including a sprinkler system, also began over the winter and work on the first barn was completed in April.

Mitchell said $7 million had been budgeted for sprinkler systems alone over the next three years, and a total of $12 million over the next three to five years on fire safety and prevention at Woodbine and Mohawk Raceway, the nearby Standardbred oval owned and operated by WEG.