The loss of over 40 racehorses in an overnight fire at a multimillion-dollar stable and training facility in Puslinch, Ont., is like the death of family members, according to a trainer who lost 17 horses in the fire.
"These horses are part of your life, rather just a commodity that you ... you go and work with every day. They're more than that," said Ben Wallace. "So you go and identify 44 family members. Can you imagine?" (According to the facility's owner, Jamie Millier, 43 horses were lost, but it's not clear what the exact number is yet.)
"I've lost everything. I mean, I've lost everything as far as my occupation, which I've been doing for 45 years, is gone. I don't have so much as a stopwatch anymore."
Wallace owned, or partially owned, 12 of the 17 horses he trained, all of which died in the fire.
Among the horses Wallace lost was Apprentice Hanover, a standardbred harness racer that was a star of the stable.
"He won his last start for us and he went over a million dollars in doing it," said Wallace. "You just don't find those situations, you just don't get those horses anymore so … you never get a second chance."
Another eight of the horses that died were just two years old, and Wallace was preparing them for the summer racing schedule.
The trainer has caretakers and other trainers who work for him, and Wallace said they're all out of job because of the fire.
Wallace's comments about family were echoed by Jamie Millier, who owns Classy Lane Stables Training Centre, about 15 kilometres east of Cambridge, along with his wife, Barb Millier. Jamie Millier flew back to Canada from Florida, where he and Barb were visiting, to deal with the fire's aftermath.
"These people love, absolutely love the horses and they live by them. So it's a big emotional thing to them just to see the horses gone," said Millier in a news conference on the property. He said he lost one of his own horses in the fire.
Millier said that when he found out about the fire, he felt "close to going to the hospital. I honestly thought I was going to have another heart attack. It's very devastating."
Millier said that the scene of the fire made him "sick" to see when he first arrived from the airport.
"Our insurance company had electrical people out to do an assessment this fall, just this past fall. There was no deficiencies of any sort in the barns," he said. "You just don't expect this to happen to a building that's 13 years old."
Firefighters struggled in harsh conditions
Local fire Chief Steven Goode told CBC News it "is the highest loss that our community has faced by far. It is a great loss. Unfortunately, none of the horses could be saved."
As he spoke, Goode stood beside the smouldering ruins of the large barn. He said that apparently a neighbour spotted the fire, which broke out around 11 p.m. ET Monday, and called 911.
Classy Lane is well known in Ontario's horse-racing industry. The facility has five barns and can accommodate 222 horses.
Barb Millier, said she was unsure exactly how many horses died, but estimates it was at least 43.
About 50 firefighters from five departments, including Guelph, Hamilton and Cambridge, were called to the scene after the blaze broke out.
They arrived to find the barn engulfed in flames. Firefighters worked as water lines froze in –15 C conditions. With no nearby hydrants, water had to be trucked to the site — not enough to save more than 40 standardbred horses stabled in barn No. 1.
"This is a multimillion-dollar fire, the highest dollar loss that we've experienced in our township," said Goode in a news conference at the scene of the fire.
Classy Lane a key employer
Horses at Classy Lane race at some of southern Ontario's best-known tracks, including Woodbine, Mohawk and Flamboro Downs.
Classy Lane's website has a page with an extensive list of winning horses that stabled or trained there. Goode said the facility is a key employer in the community of less than 8,000.
"There are five companies that are out of business right now because they've got no horses, the help have no job, the trainers have no horses to train," said Jamie Millier.
According to Kelly Spencer, manager of marketing and communications for Grand River Raceway in Elora, Ont., Classy Lane is one of the best training centres in Canada.
"It is as its name suggests. It is a very highly regarded facility, so it's a real shame," Spencer told CBC News. "It's awful, it's a tragedy for everyone involved."
Located on nearly 55 hectares, Classy Lane is described as a multimillion-dollar operation on its website.
Wallace, the trainer, said it was among the best barns in Canada.
"This was a state of the art facility that was put together to house the best in Canada, if not the best in the world," he said.
The Classy Lane website says the facility opened in 2003.
A statement from Woodbine Entertainment Group, which operates Woodbine Racetrack in the west end of Toronto, extended "deepest sympathies" to everyone affected by the fire.
"The horses lost were members of our family and their passing is emotional and heartbreaking for everyone," read part of the statement.
OPP officer brought me near the fire. Only shell of barn remains. pic.twitter.com/UJs539izkM— @MelanieFerrier
An earlier version of this story gave the names of the owners of Classy Lane Stables as Barb and Jamie Miller. In fact, their last name is Millier.Jan 05, 2016 10:11 AM ET