'It's devastating': Community reeling after dozens of racehorses die in fire

For the people of Puslinch, Ont., horseracing is more than just big business. It’s a way of life.

Most people in the south-central Ontario community are involved in the industry as horse owners, handlers and trainers.

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But the town of 7,000 was left reeling when a massive fire tore through a barn on Monday, killing more than 40 prized racehorses and leaving their owners to deal with the dramatic loss.

The fire began at approximately 11 p.m., at the Classy Lanes Stables Training Centre in Puslinch, a township located approximately 20 kilometres southeast of Guelph.

A neighbour spotted the flames and called 911. Firefighters were called in from several communities in the area, and trucked in more than 200,000 gallons of water to the location since there are no hydrants in the area.

Most of the roof collapsed, and parts of the walls fell in on the flames.

A total of 43 horses died in the blaze. The loss of the animals along with damage to the property amounts to an estimated $4 million to $5 million.

But for trainers, owners and handlers, the damage goes far beyond business.

"It's devastating...This is a lifestyle, and these horses are part of your life, rather than just a commodity," Ben Wallace told CTV Toronto through tears, saying the horses are like family.

Wallace is an owner and trainer who lost 17 horses in the fire. Wallace told CTV Toronto that one of his horses that died in the fire was racing star Apprentice Hanover, who is worth more than $1 million.

"So you go and identify 44 family members," he said. "Can you imagine if you were asked to go and identify your family? That's what it's like for the people that are doing it right now."

Wallace said the barn holds 46 horses, but there were at least two empty stalls at the time, so he wasn't sure exactly how many horses had died. He said he'd been at the stable as the fire burned through the barn, and that the fire had engulfed one of the buildings so quickly that no one was able to get to the horses.

"The smoke was so dense that you couldn't go near it. They probably all suffocated before they perished," he said in an interview with Newstalk1010 earlier in the day.

In addition to the horses, Wallace also lost all his trophies and ribbons, which he kept in an office in the barn.

Wallace described the training centre a "state-of-the-art" facility, saying it was more advanced than a traditional wooden barn. Classy Lane opened in 2003, and can accommodate as many as 222 horses, according to the stable's website.

"It is devastating to the industry," Flamboro Downs General Manager John Stolte told reporters.

"Ben Wallace has an exceptional amount of top calibre horses... To have this happen is again a reminder of how delicate things are."

The stable facility is owned by Barb and Jamie Miller, who were on vacation at the time of the fire.

Jamie Miller told reporters at the farm that the fire will have a huge impact on the racing industry, saying trainers are not only grieving the loss of the horses, but some may lose their jobs.

"There are five companies that are out of business right now because they've got no horses," he told reporters as he returned to the facility.

Several crowdfunding campaigns have been set up for those wishing to contribute to those affected by the fire. Many, like Wallace, did not have the majority of their horses insured because of the high cost.

The majority of the horses are owned by trainers like Wallace, who race them at southern Ontario racetracks including the Mohawk, Woodbine and Flamboro Downs tracks.

In a statement, Woodbine Entertainment Group said the employees' "deepest sympathies" are with those affected by the fire.

"The horses lost were members of our family and their passing is emotional and heartbreaking for everyone at Woodbine Entertainment Group."

Puslinch Fire Chief Steve Goode said fire crews also struggled because their hoses were freezing in the cold temperatures.

Goode said firefighters were able to stop the fire from spreading to other buildings.

Goode said the cause of the fire is not yet known, but crews are working with provincial police and the Ontario Fire Marshal to investigate.

"This is a multi-million dollar fire, the highest dollar loss that we have experienced in our township," he said.

He said the building is not structurally sound and has to be so that it’s safe for officials to go in and investigate.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture will be helping the owners to dispose of the animals’ bodies.

With reports from CTV Toronto's John Musselman and Zuraidah Alman


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