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Classy Lane stables rebuilding barn and morale after tragic fire last month

Simple markers attached to trees pay tribute to the 43 horses lost at Classy Lane on  Jan. 4.

Classy Lane stables rebuilding barn and morale after tragic fire last month

by Jaime Myslik

PUSLINCH - It was a morning like any other at Classy Lane Training Centre on Feb. 18.

The steady rhythm of the four beat walk and neighs and nickers sounded throughout the shedrow, horses stood calmly in aisle cross ties giving the occasional stomp as if to say, “can we get a move on?”  and groom Cindy Acton was tending to her equine charges before serving them lunch.

But under the surface everything was different.

The horses Acton was caring for were new and the barn she was in was not where she closed out the 2015 season. Just outside the sliding doors of Barn 2 was an empty space where Barn 1 stood prior to the tragic Jan. 4 fire that destroyed the building, killing 43 horses.

“The hardest part ... when you’re working on a bunch of new [horses] is realizing that the other ones are gone,” Acton said. “One horse that I have, he likes to kick and he’s really not nice and the first thing that comes to my mind is, ‘Oh the one I had before ... he didn’t do that.’

“Or the five that I had before, I knew them so well that anything they did was not in my way because I knew it was coming.”

Acton, 29, is a groom for Ben Wallace, 65, who was training 16 racehorses that perished in the fire, including 10 of his own.

“Every horse is a character and every horse has its idiosyncrasies and we lost a couple of very, very good horses, but that doesn’t diminish any of the prospects that we didn’t quite know,” said Wallace.

“Some horses you have a handle on, you know what their ability is and to what level they’re going to reach, but we lost some young horses and they just seemed ... to be peaking and we’ll never get to really know how decent or how bad they were, but we tend to think some of them were pretty nice horses.”

The fire was called into 911 at around 11pm on Jan. 4 and  shortly thereafter there were up to 50 firefighters on the scene. But they couldn’t save the barn, Puslinch fire chief Steve Goode said at the time. The cause is still being investigated.

“I think anybody (that) goes through a tragedy like this is basically just kind of in a bubble for a few days or just in a bit of a vacuum,” Wallace said.

“Next to your own family, next to losing sons and daughters and certainly husbands and wives, children of any age or any family members, this is as traumatic as you could get for any sorrow.”

Wallace, a Puslinch resident who’s been training standardbred racehorses for over 45 years, said he never considered leaving the industry after the fire.

“It’s just a natural thing for us, you know this is what we do, we train racehorses and there was never any question - I was going to go back training horses.”

But he said it wasn’t easy.

“You just have to dig deep down and then regroup and reload and hopefully it starts off,” he said. “You know I started with two (horses after the fire) and within a month’s period I ended up having 18 or so.

“Hopefully some of them will pick up some of the pieces from the ones we lost.”

Along with Wallace, trainers Roger Mayotte, Chantal Mitchell, Kris Di Cenzo, Dan Lagace and Floyd Amos lost horses in the fire.

“They’re trying to get up running again and I think they are,” Wallace said.

“They are much younger ... than I am and they’ve got maybe a little tougher road ... given they may not have had the experience I’ve had and then consequently haven’t regrouped to that same extent,  but they will.”

All of Wallace’s staff are back working for him now, but it wasn’t an easy decision for Acton.

“I almost quit the day that we started working on new horses,” she said. “It was like it suddenly hit me that I was never going to work on those (horses) again. So it was really tough ... but you just keep coming back.”

Both Wallace and Acton commended the Central Ontario Standardbred Association (COSA) for its support in the days following the fire. The association set up a GoFundMe page that had raised $638,336 by press time (the goal was $500,000).

Wallace said the association provided a seamless transition for the caretakers and staff of all six trainers who lost their horses.

“None of those caretakers lost a pay cheque [and] what they lost in the fire as far as belongings was paid for,” he explained.

COSA president Bill O’Donnell said the association is helping out everybody involved in the fire - trainers, caretakers and owners alike. The seven caretakers, “are taken care of for awhile and the trainers the same way,” he said.

O’Donnell also said the horses are being appraised and the association will look at how it can further help those affected.

Acton said she was really appreciative of a snowsuit donation.

“That was one of the things that caretakers lost that’s really hard to replace,” she said. “For us we only make so much money each week and to replace things like that would take us a long time.”

O’Donnell also said equipment manufacturers donated race bikes, jog carts, harnesses and bridles to trainers, and other suppliers offered discounts on needed equipment. COSA also provided trainers with funds for each horse to rebuild their equipment supply.

Although business at Classy Lane is moving forward, there is a huge void in the farm’s landscape where Barn 1 once stood. The ground itself looks unremarkable, however, under a layer of snow and straw lies the next phase in the farm’s development: Barn 6.

“I’m glad they’re building a new barn but I don’t know what it’s going to be like to work in that barn,” Acton said. “I’m sure once the structure starts to come into shape it will start to feel better, but it’s still going to be tough.

“It’s going to be eerie for sure, working in there.”

Right now the six trainers affected by the fire are scattered throughout the remaining barns, with some housed in a summer barn.

Facility owner Jamie Millier said those trainers will have the first option to settle in the new barn.

“I’m sure they will go back in, but some of them might not want to just because of sentimental reasons,” he said.

Though the new Barn 6 is being built on the same site as Barn 1 it will be completely different. It’s going to be smaller, Millier said, with 44 stalls to match the other facility barns (Barn 1 had 46).

Millier said officials are also looking at advanced fire prevention options.  

“We’re looking right now at sprinklers in the office and storage areas where there’s any electrical, you know, fridges or heaters or anything like that,” he said.

In the Jan. 4 fire those auxiliary areas weren’t as badly damaged as the main barn.

“You’ve seen the pictures of the barn and yet the toilet paper in the washroom never burned,” he said. The thinking is that if the potential fire hazards are in those protected areas any damage from potential fires can be mitigated and contained to those specific areas.

“We’re also putting automatic door closers on all the offices and storage rooms,” Millier said. “Of course so

that they stay closed, so if a fire is in there then it contains it for that much longer.”

He also said the farm is working to implement an alarm system that won’t be impacted by the dust and everyday happenings in a barn and will still alert everyone of potential fires.

After the deadly Jan. 4 fire, Millier said he initially considered not rebuilding.

“Really the main reason I decided to do it is because I built that farm from scratch myself and without that barn there it just wasn’t what I built,” he said.

“So that was more the reason than anything, is just to sort of get some peace for myself that I don’t walk out there and see a reminder that 43 horses died.”

Millier began building the facility in the fall of 2002 and officially opened in April 2003, using three different builders to get the work done quickly.

“There was no real complete top-of-the-line facility that had all the amenities that is needed and there were a couple in New Jersey and I went down and had a look at them and talked to a couple of trainers and they said, ‘yeah if you build a good spot there’s a need for it,’” he said. “So that’s what I did.”

Though the farm is rebuilding and new horses are coming and going, the 43 horses that lost their lives will not be forgotten.

To the east of the new Barn 6 there will be a permanent memorial to honour the animals that perished.

Millier’s wife, and facility co-owner, Barb, explained, “There’s going to be two monuments with the horses’ names on them in the garden but also on the back of one monument you’ll see a piece of tin that says Barn 1 and some horse shoes, that’s the original piece of tin that we saved off the barn burned.

“We can’t do (it) until spring but as soon as the weather breaks we are doing it.”

Greer Design Group designed the memorial and collected donations for labour and  material, Barb explained.     

“So in between them and Standardbred Canada, they’re pretty much going to be doing it for us, which is just wonderful,” Barb said.

Barn 6 is scheduled to open at the beginning of May.

“Everyone’s trying to get back to their normal life and their normal way and a lot of the healing was done with the support that they got from the people not only in our community but from all over - actually all over the world.” Millier said.

To contribute to the GoFundMe account visit

February 26, 2016


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