MIDDLEBURG — As fire officials and insurance investigators sift through the charred remains of a century-old horse barn looking for clues to Monday night's devastating fire, Mark Johnson will be attending a makeshift funeral for nine of his friends.
"I knew them all," said Johnson, the 29-year-old farmhand at Bowling Brook Farm said yesterday afternoon, gazing from his modest home overlooking the smoldering wood and twisted metal where nine thoroughbred racehorses perished late Monday night. "I could tell you which one was which. This is the saddest thingI have ever seen."
Johnson will bury the animals -- all victims of a two-alarm blazethat destroyed Bowling Brook Farm's indoor horse-training barn in a matter of hours -- in what was once the infield of the barn's one-sixth-mile track.
"It's not a task I look forward to, but somebody's got to do it," Johnson said. "Most of them never even had a chance toget out."
The fire, which caused more than $500,000 in damage, began shortly after 11:20 p.m. Monday and was battled by more than 150 firefighters from 10 companies, using more than 50 pieces of equipment, said Bob Thomas, deputy chief state fire marshal. The fire was under control by 2 a.m. Tuesday, Thomas said.
No cause of the fire had been determined last night, but Thomas said they have pinpointed where the blaze started. He said the cause does not appear suspicious.
Two firefighters were treated for injuries -- one for smoke inhalation, one for flulike symptoms -- at the scene.
Bowling Brook was on its way to a recovery of sorts, thanks to Westminster entrepreneurMark Gross, the 40-year-old owner of the 225-acre farm along Crouse Mill Road.
The farm -- a one-time powerhouse in Maryland thoroughbred training circles -- was once the home of seven Preakness winners,four Belmont Stakes winners and a Kentucky Derby victor.
The farm, in decay when Gross' Eggs I Corp. Inc. purchased it in 1989, saw its trademark training barn returned to its former glory just last year. The farm -- once the crown jewel of Maryland horse farms -- had been rotting for more than 30 years.
Gross declined to comment on theblaze. His administrative assistant said he was at the scene until about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday.
"He's very saddened," Koreen Whaley said. "It's all really horrible."
Gross -- who owns and lives in the newly renovated Westminster Inn -- bought the farm to keep it off the housing development market, Whaley said. While Gross' plans for the barn weren't known yesterday, Whaley said that she expected him to rebuild.
The barn did have fire insurance, she said. Whaley said she didn't know if individual horse owners had insurance.
As what was left of the wooden structure smoldered in the chilly wind yesterday afternoon, the burnt bodies of at least four racehorses -- some worth asmuch as $75,000 -- were partially buried under scraps of charred metal.
Johnson and several others who live near the barn were startled by crackling noises and a glow shortly after 11 p.m. They were ableto free four of the 13 horses in the 50-stall barn.
Of the nine horses that were killed, only two had racing experience. Most of them were trapped in their stalls, Johnson said.
Staff writer Ed McDonough contributed to this report.