The 30 horses that perished in last week’s barn fire were laid to rest last weekend near the backstretch at Tioga Downs. The burial, a somber move, will soon have a dedicated memorial that will stand as a lasting tribute to their impact on the harness racing community.
According to officials, the horses were laid to rest in a simple service, with approval from authorities, and were buried together adjacent to the barn where the incident occurred.
And in the meantime mourning is evident, as many try to wrap their arms around what exactly happened.
On Nov. 9, 2023, a suspected arsonist set fire to Barn F behind the harness racing track at Tioga Downs Casino Resort, located on W. River Road in Nichols, N.Y. The early morning fire resulted in a significant loss of equipment, and the heartbreaking death of 30 horses that were stabled there.
Although a motive has not yet been disclosed, and the investigation continues, those close to the track, and beyond, are working to deal with the emotional toll.
At Barn F on Monday, Groom JoAnn Payne stood near the remains of what once stood tall as Barn F, a stable for many, both young and old. Her job, she explained, was to feed them and take care of them.
Tearfully, she stated, “I don’t have one left,” as she pointed to what remained of Barn F. “They were my morning buddies,” she added.
Guy Howard, president of the Southern Tier Harness Horsemen’s Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes harness horse racing at Tioga Downs, was also at the barns on Monday, trying to make sense of things and as the criminal investigation continues.
Howard explained that equipment and supplies are coming in, but it is money they need to rebuild and replace what they lost. A GoFundMe set up for Tioga Downs Horsemen immediately following news of the fire has already exceeded $180,000, and with donations, big and small, continuing to roll in. You can find the GoFundMe Account at https://gofund.me/812d535c.
Howard also mentioned the grief being experienced, and that counselors were coming in to help everyone personally involved in the tragedy.
According to Harnesslink.com, Tioga Downs owner Jeff Gural pledged to match up to $100,000 of the money donated via the above GoFundMe account from his tracks, which include Tioga Downs, The Meadowlands, and Vernon Downs.
“It’s just sad and senseless that this can happen so randomly,” said Gural in an interview with Harnesslink.com, adding, “I have a farm ten minutes away and I love my visits to Tioga for the racing and to spend time with the mares and foals at the farm. We’re here to help and support these people who have suffered an unthinkable horror and must now rebuild their lives.”
As for the charges, animal cruelty charges were not included, and signed petitions were circulating, one through the Tioga County Fair’s Harness Racing affiliates, asking for further justice for the trainers and their horses.
In a letter to the Tioga County District Attorney’s Office, it outlined, “In Nichols, N.Y., a grave incident of animal cruelty has occurred. Boyd H. Fenton set fire to a barn at Tioga Downs and caused over 30 horses to suffer and perish. He has been charged with arson, burglary, assault, and criminal mischief and faces an extremely short jail stay if he is found guilty and gets the minimum sentences. This is unacceptable. Animal cruelty is a serious crime that should not be taken lightly or ignored.”
Others, both in online or letter writing campaigns, and even PETA, expressed this sentiment.
On Wednesday, however, Tioga County’s District Attorney, Kirk Martin, announced that he would be pursuing animal cruelty charges, but cautioned that it will take some time as an indictment is needed to enable him to move forward.
According to D.A. Martin, Fenton is currently being held on the Assault 2nd charge that resulted from the injury of one of the five trainers who were stabled in Barn F. Trainer Edgar Clarke was the trainer that suffered facial and arm burns, and is being treated. All of the horses and racing equipment from Barn F were burned in the fire.
The district attorney noted that the Assault in the second-degree charge, a class D felony, was the only charge that Fenton could be held on because of bail reform laws. Other charges include Arson in the third degree, a class “C” felony; Burglary in the third degree, a class “D” felony; and Criminal Mischief in the second degree, a class “D” felony.
“The State Police are still collecting evidence, and my office will be investigating, alongside the state police, the potential for animal cruelty charges in this case. I will be pursuing this very aggressively.”
Jim Mead, Tioga Fair Board Harness Racing superintendent and organizer of the annual Sire Stakes, was pleased that the district attorney will be pushing for cruelty charges, and spoke of the tragedy at Tioga Downs. He emphasized the ties with local folks and harness racing, and the annual Sire Stakes held the week of the fair each year.
Mead agreed that the horsemen participating in the sport locally need help, and that the GoFundMe Account, at this time, is the best way to support things.
As for the horses, the words that accompany every story are “unimaginable loss”. And maybe only a horse lover could understand that depth, or bond, like such that was evident over the years at Dad’s Ice Cream in Nichols, N.Y.
Its former owner, the late Richard C. MacDonald Sr., affectionately known as “Dad”, had photographs that hung on his walls of his horses, to include Lovely Magic and My Buddy Mason, horses that raced at one time at Tioga Downs.
At Harnesslink.com, A Tribute to Tioga Downs was published, highlighting some of the families and their horses that were lost in that early morning fire on Nov. 9, 2023.
Ranging from the young to the old, each owner referenced their horse, upon their description, as their baby; talking with pride of their horse, and their training, accomplishments, and their earnings. But they also touched on their close connections.
According to Harnesslink.com, Trainer Allison Kolesar, of Ulster, Pa., had four horses in barn F that fateful day. Her daughter Rayna, according to the article, loved her horses just as much and would be found frequently at the barn to play with the horses or walk them around the Tioga Downs stable area.
Dan Harvey had two horses stabled in the barn. One of those was Karpathos, a 22-year-old retired standardbred owned by Harvey. A touching photo of the owner and horse has circulated via social media along with other tributes, and as the community and beyond continues to heal.
In another story published on Harnesslink.com, a touching tribute by Jessica Hallett, who also created artwork that reminds everyone that “We Stand With Tioga Downs” and are #TiogaStrong in this effort, contained the names of those laid to rest. Tioga County New York’s FireWire also provided a similar tribute of names.
As written: Always Smooth, Better Call Saul, Birdie Three, Blazin Mooss, Buzzards R Flying, Da Boogie Man, Danzon Hanover, Diamond Express, Fireside Tail, Grant Me This, Hall It Off, Hot Shot Joe, Hunts Point, Ideal Chance, Its Rigged, Karpathos, Lone Wolf American, Market Mayhem, Mc Mach, My Delight, Payara, Pineapple Sundae, Pocket Watch N, Prairie Dutchess, Ruff Montana Lane, SD Watch Me Now, Silverhill Misty, Slave Labour, Violence, and Unnamed Yearling. May they Rest in Peace.