05/30/2003 12:00AM

Shock, sadness over arson

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - On the surface, it may have appeared to be business as usual on the backstretch here Friday.

But it was impossible not to feel the undercurrents of shock and horror, tinged with sadness and disbelief, the morning after the Ontario fire marshal's office announced that arson was the cause of the barn fire that claimed the lives of 34 horses here last Aug. 4.

"Arson is something that would throw fear into every horseman, in every barn, at every racetrack," said trainer Earl Barnett, who lost four horses in the blaze. "That was our worst nightmare, everyone in that barn. It's something you don't want to hear.

"If it was a cigarette, or electrical or mechanical - something like that happens. But arson . . . it's a shock and horror that someone actually could do something like this."

Trainer Steve Owens, whose entire ontrack complement of 14 horses perished in the fire, said Thursday's news had forced him to relive that terrible morning.

"It's just so hard to hear about it again," said Owens. "It's like somebody ripped my heart out again, nine months after the fact."

Trainer Danny O'Callaghan, who lost 15 horses in the tragedy, also said the news brought painful recollections.

"I was shocked when I heard about it," said O'Callaghan. "To think there was somebody that would do that - it's really worrisome.

"That's the hard part - not knowing whether that person is still walking around."

But in the end, the one reaction the three trainers shared was all about the horses.

"People outside [of the backstretch] think of the horse as more or less of a commodity," said Barnett. "They don't understand the attachment we have to these animals.

"Although they're our livelihood, they're practically members of our families."

Trainers still trying to regroup

The loss of equine life was difficult enough to bear, but the ramifications of the fire went even further for Barnett, Owens, and O'Callaghan.

Some of their horses who suffered smoke inhalation or other injuries in the fire were never the same afterward. Years of hard work that went into building successful racing and breeding operations were wiped out, literally overnight.

But Owens, Barnett, and O'Callaghan all have regrouped and have reason to be optimistic about their futures.

Owens, whose losses included four of his family's homebreds, was busy Friday morning preparing a set of three young horses to work in company.

"I have 16 young horses; 15 are 2-year-olds," said Owens, who trains 24 horses total. "And, I have a couple of new clients."

While Owens continues to train for owners such as Howard Walton and G.G. Racing Stable, he has added Camilla Farm, Martin Dinkin, and, most recently, Eugene Melnyk to his client base.

Barnett, who was at the sand ring observing a homebred 2-year-old who had just come to the track Friday morning, noted that his losses in the fire included his best horses, the stakes-caliber Saratoga Prince and What a Breeze.

"Basically, I'm starting again from where I was 10 years ago," said Barnett, whose 14 horses include only three with racing experience. Most are homebreds, owned solely or in partnership by Barnett.

"But, I have a positive attitude," Barnett added. "I did it once, I can do it again."

O'Callaghan has 16 horses in his public stable.

"I had great support from all my owners," said O'Callaghan, adding that he had also gained a new client, Ian Jamieson.

"I have a lot of young stock; I expect it will take me two years to get back to where I was."

On Friday morning, O'Callaghan was in the process of moving back into the first of two new barns that will replace those destroyed by the fire.

The trainer also pointed out that Friday had brought another strange twist of fate, as he welcomed a filly named Wild Romp to his shed row.

O'Callaghan had claimed Wild Romp for $50,000, for Bridle Path Racing Stable, from her first career start last Aug. 3, and she had been spending her first night in his barn when the disaster struck.

"She was hurt in the fire," said the trainer. "I just got her back."