30 Horses Die in Arson Fire at Upstate Racetrack

Dozens of racehorses were killed last week when an arsonist set fire to a barn in upstate New York, leaving their owners devastated.

“Those horses meant everything to us,” said Edgar Clarke, a Standardbred horse trainer who tried to help the animals escape but ultimately lost all six of his horses in the blaze.

Not one of the more than two dozen horses inside survived the fire that broke out early Thursday morning at the barn in Tioga Downs Casino Resort in Nichols, N.Y., according to police officials. Horse owners said 30 horses died, according to Harnesslink, a website that reports on harness racing.

Within hours, Boyd H. Fenton, 32, was accused of intentionally igniting the fire, according to a statement from the New York State Police.

Mr. Fenton, of Athens, Pa., was being held at the Tioga County Correctional Facility. He was charged with arson, burglary, criminal mischief and assault, according to the police.

Horse owners said they did not know who Mr. Fenton was or why he would want to burn down the casino’s barn, and the police did not provide a motive. It was not immediately clear if Mr. Fenton had a lawyer.

Mr. Clarke and his wife, Cheri Clarke, said they had arrived at the barn at around 6:15 a.m. on Thursday to start their day training and caring for their horses. As the car drew closer, they saw flames and “went into panic mode,” Mr. Clarke said. They ran to different entrances of the burning building to try to rescue the horses, Mr. Clarke said.

Sandy Cheeks, one of 30 horses that died in a fire at Tioga Downs.

Mr. Clarke, 68, said he grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed the flames. But, he said, “I couldn’t get in the barn. It was totally engulfed.” He suffered second-degree burns on his face.

Ms. Clarke, 57, said her path was obstructed by flames and thick smoke.

“We took one step in and had to go back out again and we couldn’t — I heard them screaming. I heard the horses kicking and screaming,” Ms. Clarke said, sobbing. “We couldn’t do anything to help them.”

Many of the horses at Tioga Downs competed in harness racing — in which drivers are pulled by their horses in a chariot-like cart. Though the sport has declined in popularity in recent decades, it has long history in Nichols, N.Y., in the Southern Tier of New York State about 200 miles northwest of Manhattan. The harness racing track at Tioga Downs is one of seven in the state.

The damage caused by the blaze was “a loss no one could have imagined or expected,” said Jeff Gural, a New York City real estate developer who is the chairman of American Racing & Entertainment, which owns the casino and the track, in a statement posted to the Tioga Downs Facebook page.

Kayla and Lee Morris, who moved to the United States two years ago from Britain to pursue harness racing, lost all 12 of the horses they owned or trained at Tioga Downs. They had owned one of the horses, Sandy Cheeks, who was 2, for just two weeks.

“It’s soul-destroying,” Ms. Morris said. “It’s taken everything from us.”

On Thursday morning, Ms. Morris said she and her husband ran to the barn in their pajamas as soon as they heard about the fire.

“I tried to get in the barn, but I just couldn’t because the fire was just so hot and I just screamed and screamed,” she said. “I sat for four hours and watched it burn and just hoped — hoped — that one of them would come out.”

Both the Morrises and the Clarkes had built their career on caring for, training and racing horses specifically bred for harness racing.

Mr. and Ms. Clarke said they aren’t sure how to move forward after having lost their horses and all their equipment in the fire. “The last few days are the first time in my entire life I’ve not had a horse,” said Mr. Clarke.

The horses that died included Danzon Hanover, a brown and black horse who loved to nip at zippers and sweatshirt strings, and Lone Wolf American, a 4-year-old who greeted anyone who approached his stall, they said.

Pocket Watch N, a stocky horse with a sleek brown coat that was so dark it almost looked black, was 7 years old and had forged a friendship with the daughter of a friend who was also 7, the Clarkes said.

Mr. Clarke said he has not been back to the track since the fire. “I don’t want to see what happened,” he said.

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