PUSLINCH, Ont. — The deaths of at least 40 racehorses in a massive barn fire is more than just a professional catastrophe — it’s akin to losing members of a family, one trainer said Tuesday.
Dan Lagace was working with seven horses who were being housed at the Classy Lane Stables in the southern Ontario town of Puslinch, about 20 kilometres south of Guelph. All of his animals and at least 33 more perished Monday night in a blaze that could only be subdued through the efforts of 50 firefighters from multiple communities.
Lagace said he got word of the fire around 11 p.m. Monday — around the same time fire officials said the blaze was reported by a neighbour.
He rushed to the scene from his home in nearby Cambridge, but said he could only stand helplessly by as the building that contained both his livelihood and loved ones was engulfed in flames.
“It’s almost like losing a child. These horses, they’re every part of your life,” the 38-year-old said in a telephone interview. “On Christmas morning, when other people are opening gifts with their kids and stuff like that, we’re out at the farm making sure they’re taken care of first. On Sunday mornings when other people are sleeping in, we’re there too.”
Lagace said the blaze also represents a devastating professional setback. He said he has virtually nothing left, since equipment amassed over years was also destroyed in the fire.
Classy Lane co-owner Jamie Miller flew home from Florida on Tuesday to assess the damage.
“There’s five companies that are out of business right now because they’ve got no horses, the help has no job, the trainers have no horses to train, and these people love — absolutely love — the horses, and they live by them,” he told TV news channel CP24 when he arrived at the scene.
Grief over what’s being described as a multimillion-dollar fire is not just confined to the owners and trainers, according to Puslinch’s fire chief.
Steven Goode said the community is now trying to process one of the most significant emotional and financial losses in its history as officials with the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office launch an investigation to determine its cause.
“We consider this a horse community and it is absolutely devastating,” Goode told a news conference.
The fire broke out on a night when temperatures dipped as low as -20 C.
Local crews responded quickly, but found the barn with at least 40 horses inside fully engulfed in flames once they arrived on scene, Goode said.
The dozens of firefighters from Puslinch, Guelph, Cambridge and Hamilton had to struggle with adverse conditions caused by the frigid temperatures, he said, adding the wintry weather caused hose lines to keep freezing up and created challenging road conditions.
Goode declined to say exactly how many of the racehorses died in the fire, but described it as a “multimillion-dollar” blaze that is “the highest dollar loss that we’ve experienced in our township.”
Neither Lagace nor fellow trainer Ben Wallace had any safety concerns about the facility before the fire broke out.
Wallace, a decorated trainer once honoured with the O’Brien award for Canada’s trainer of the year, said he’d been using the Classy Lane Stables for more than a decade.
“It’s a state-of-the-art facility,” said Wallace, who lost 17 horses in the blaze. “It’s owned by great people. They were diligent and did everything that certainly I felt was necessary.”
Classy Lane co-owner Barb Miller said the horses traditionally raced at the Mohawk, Woodbine and Flamboro Downs racetracks in southern Ontario.
The Classy Lane website says the facility opened in 2003 and has five barns that accommodate 222 horses.
By Tuesday afternoon, several crowdsourcing campaigns had begun to help raise money for those impacted by the fire. One GoFundMe campaign had raised more than 10 per cent of its $15,000 target in its first hour.