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.