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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

30 horses die in arson fire at upstate New York racetrack

Tioga Downs, the racetrack where a fire killed more than two dozen horses.

By Erin Nolan

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 at the barn in Tioga Downs Casino Resort in Nichols, according to police officials. Horse owners said 30 horses died, according to Harnesslink, a website that reports on harness racing.

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

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

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

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

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.

Cheri 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,” she 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 chariotlike cart. Although the sport has declined in popularity in recent decades, it has a long history in Nichols, 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 chair 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, 2-year-old Sandy Cheeks, for just two weeks.

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

On Thursday morning, 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.

The Clarkes 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 Edgar 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 that 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.

Edgar 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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