After fire killed 30 horses, Tioga Downs tries to get back to business as usual
Thirty horses were killed and a barn destroyed in a fire last month at the Tioga Downs Casino Resort and racetrack in the town of Nichols.
New York State Police arrested Boyd Fenton of Athens, Pennsylvania in connection with the incident. He was charged with arson, burglary, criminal mischief and assault. He will be arraigned in Tioga County Court on Friday.
The people who own, train and care for the horses at Tioga Downs are trying to get back to business as usual.
Edgar Clarke, who goes by “Sparky”, is a horse owner and trainer.
On the morning of Nov. 9, Clarke and his wife Cheri headed to the Tioga Downs complex later than usual due to a scheduled offsite appointment.
When they arrived, Clarke said he saw a red light in the barn.
“And as we got closer she screamed, 'Fire!'” Clarke said. “And I said call 911. So she called 911. And we took off like crazy to get into the barn area to get... because I thought when I looked at the flame that was in the window, I thought it was just in my area.”
Clarke said he went into the barn and tried to put out the flames with fire extinguishers.
“So, that's when I went in the barn and grabbed the first fire extinguisher and tried to put it out, which by that time it was... a waste of time anyway. But then I run into the next barn and try to grab that fire extinguisher and that's when I got second-degree burns on my face,” he explained. “Because I got behind the door and it was so black in there, I couldn't find my way out. But I felt along the door and the flames were just flying over my head.”
The fire burned his nose, eyes and ears.
Five trainers lost a total of 30 Standardbred, harness race horses in the fire. Their ages ranged from just under a year old to a 22-year-old retired race horse. There were also three barn cats that died in the fire—Dolly, Fluffy and Tioga—according to Clarke.
Clarke lost four horses of his own and two that belonged to a client. One of his horses was a yearling he purchased the day before the fire.
“I just got her home, put her in the stall and patted her on the head and said I'll see you in the morning and never seen [them] again.”
Clarke said that while the horses are a business, they are also considered family members while in their care.
On a cold, snowy day last week, some trainers were out at Tioga Downs on the track exercising the horses.
Training slows in the winter months because the racing season is from May through September. Since the fire on Nov. 9, trainers are slowly returning.
There has been an outpouring of support from people across the country since the fire. Equipment, money and even horses are part of the donations.
Randy Taft is the president of the Southern Tier Harness Horseman's Association. It is a member organization that offers trainers and owners at Tioga Downs access to the stables, equipment, health care and retirement opportunities. Taft said donations to the trainers and owners currently totals $700,000.
“Their livelihoods stopped immediately until they rebuild," Taft said. "The bills keep coming... the car [payment] still due. The rent or the mortgage is still due, insurance, all that kind of stuff. Llife keeps going, you have no money coming in. So, at least we have some money to get them that they can bridge the gap till they're up and running again.”
Taft said some money and equipment has already been distributed. And the loss caused by the fire is estimated between $1-2 million.
Clarke said that receiving horses from friends in the industry has made a big difference in his recovery and return to the racetrack.
“I wasn't prepared for this right now because I just, I didn't want to go to the track and I'm not even sure if I want... to keep doing this," Clarke said. "But maybe it's the best thing that they did send me some horses because now I have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
According to Taft, at the height of racing season there can be up to 300 horses at the complex and up to 20 horses on the track at once. During the off-season, there may be 40 horses housed at the stables and a handful of them on the tracks during the day for exercise.
Taft said to improve safety, the complex is looking into better fire retardant and sprinkler systems.
An official at Tioga Downs said the gaming complex will install Wi-Fi out by the barns for individual security systems and monitoring going forward. There is no time frame yet for the installation.
Construction on a new barn will begin in the spring.
There are plans to have a monument to the horses built on the property before the start of the 2024 racing season. It will be built in the space where the horses are buried—adjacent to the barn that burned down. It will include a bench and reflection area along with signage displaying the names and ages of the horses who died on Nov. 9.
Currently, there is a makeshift memorial in the space.