Ohio barn fire deaths raise questions

Sleeping in barns is a rite of passage for some horsemen and a

way of life for others, a practice that’s as much a part of the

business as the $2 exacta.

Some tracks embrace the idea, others don’t. Some tracks offer

dormitories to give stable workers a housing option, others don’t.

Regulations vary from track-to-track and state-to-state, though

they aren’t always aggressively enforced.

Ronnie Williams and James “Turtle” Edwards knew the rules at

Lebanon Raceway in southwest Ohio strictly prohibited sleeping in

tack rooms and often broke them anyway. The decision may have cost

them their lives after a fire ripped through Barn 16 last weekend,

killing the longtime grooms and 45 horses.

The tragedy has placed an uncomfortable spotlight on the lives

of stable workers like Williams and Edwards and the complicated

relationship track operators have with the people considered the

backbone of the industry.

“It could have happened anywhere,” said groomer Jackie Winn,

who considered the two men close friends.

So why would they put themselves at risk?

The barn can provide solitude, cheap if not exactly luxurious

accommodations and a short commute to work.

It also offers peace of mind to the people who make their

livelihood at the track, be they owners, trainers or groomers.

“Horses come first,” said Cathy Prickett, who runs the track

kitchen at the tiny Lebanon Raceway and has a handful of

standardbred harness racing horses stabled on the backside of the

half-mile oval.

Though the accident remains under investigation by the state

fire marshal’s office, criminal intent has been ruled out.

The fire isn’t the first to devastate the track. Nearly three

dozen horses were killed in 1988 when a faulty portable hot water

heater sparked a blaze that turned a barn 100 yards from the

grandstand into ashes.

“It’s a part of the business,” said owner and trainer Stan

Crowe, who lost four horses in last week’s fire.

Some industry organizations are attempting to change that.

The Association of Racing Commissions International has put

forth a set of model rules it recommends states follow. The rules

don’t speak specifically to sleeping in the barns, they do prohibit

smoking in stalls or shedrows, building a fire in a barn or leaving

an electrical appliance unattended.

The recommendations are just that. It largely remains up to the

tracks to set the ground rules.

Sleeping in the tack rooms is allowed at Churchill Downs, home

of the Kentucky Derby, though track officials try to make sure

conditions are benign. Track stewards confiscated 30 hot plates and

electric skillets during a barn sweep in May because they were

considered a fire hazard.

Comparing the effectiveness of one track policy to another is

also difficult because enforcement can vary so widely, even within

the same state.

Scioto Downs, located about 80 miles east of Lebanon in

Columbus, allows workers to stay in the tack rooms during its

meets. The track also has two dormitories that provide housing for

horsemen for $25 a month.

Whether Lebanon provides the same option is up for legal

debate.

The Ohio State Racing Commission’s rulebook says racing permit

holders are required to provide shelter for stable workers during

live meets. The meet at Lebanon runs on Friday and Saturday nights

from the fall through the spring.

There are no dormitories on the grounds at Lebanon, though under

the OSRC’s guidelines it is possible that the tack rooms inside the

barns would be considered adequate said OSRC deputy director John

Izzo.

The OSRC has not looked into the housing situation at Lebanon

because it hasn’t received any official complaints.

“If nobody is complaining that something is wrong, it’s not

something we’re ignoring, it’s just not our primary focus,” Izzo

said.

Just who is responsible for making sure living space is provided

remains in question.

Izzo said the obligation lies with the permit holders. Miami

Valley Trotting Association president Karen Heaberlin argued that

it’s up to the Fair Board. Fair Board attorney Bill Schroeder

maintains the racing associations are the ones required to make

sure they meet the OSRC guidelines.

“It’s not up to us,” Schroeder said. “The (racing

associations) are the permit holders and have to comply.”

The trouble is even if the tack rooms are considered adequate

housing, they’ve been deemed off limits by the Fair Board, not the

permit holders. There are signs scattered across the backside

alerting workers that the barns are closed at night.

Williams and Edwards saw them every day. They ignored them.

“They stayed there because they didn’t have any place to go,”

said Stan Crowe, a longtime owner and trainer at the track.

And even if they did, odds were the two men would have opted for

the quiet sanctity of the barns anyway rather than the AllState Inn

located across the street from the track, where rates are about $45

a night.

The average groom salary depends on the track and the trainer,

but Winn, for example, said he makes around $290 a week and

supplements his income by doing some additional work for the Warren

County Fair Board.

“Ronnie didn’t know any different,” said Diane Williams, who

grew up at the track alongside her older brother and still dabbles

in the business when she’s not working at a nearby Wal-Mart.

While Williams “could save a dime” according to Winn and had

family in the area, no one raised a fuss when he chose stay in the

barn. Most say it’s because sleeping at the track is such an

accepted part of the racing culture, particularly for the people

who spend more time with the horses than anyone else at the

track.

“The (grooms’) responsibility is their horses,” said Elliott

Walden, vice president and racing manager at WinStar Farms in

Versailles, Ky. “It’s not unlike a family whose father feels they

need to live with their children. These grooms feel like they need

to live with their horses.”

Some horsemen view their nights in the barns as a badge of

honor.

Kentucky Derby winning trainer Rick Dutrow boasted about

sleeping on a cot at Aqueduct Race track in New York for months a

decade ago before his career finally took off.

“It’s part and parcel of it,” said Hall of Fame jockey Pat

Day, who said the only reason he never slept in a tack room is

because he had a small camper on the back of his pickup truck.

It’s why no one complained when Williams and Edwards, nicknamed

“Turtle” for his slow, deliberate walk, bunked in the tack rooms.

The two were lifelong racing nomads who went from meet to meet and

track to track looking for work.

They have been fixtures during Lebanon’s meet for years, and the

last night of their lives were like hundreds before it.

Williams and Edwards were among the last people on the backside

following last Friday’s 14-race card. They ordered a pizza from

Domino’s before heading into Barn 16, one of four football-field

size barns at the track.

“They probably got their belly full and fell asleep,” said

Winn.

He hopes their deaths will wake up the industry.

—-

Associated Press Writer Jeffrey McMurray in Lexington, Ky.,

contributed to this report.

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