MIDDLEBURG -- The blaze could be seen for miles.
Shortly after 11 p.m. Monday, a two-alarm fire that is believed to have started in a stall used for hay and straw storage quickly engulfed the majestic training barn at historic Bowling Brook Farm and killed nine of the 13 thoroughbred racehorses stabled there.
The wooden building, known for its four imposing water towers, was a landmark in northern Carroll County.
Today, all that is left of the 98-year-old structure -- which once housed seven Preakness winners, one Kentucky Derby winner and three winners of the Belmont Stakes -- is a pile of smoldering tin and the charred remains of the nine horses.
Farm owner Mark Gross will instruct his foreman to bulldoze a huge hole in the courtyard of the destroyed barn and bury the animals there this morning.
The fire was spotted by farm employee Mark Johnson. "I was looking out my kitchen window, and saw the blaze," Johnson said. "I was just in my underwear, getting ready to go to bed. I ran outside and woke up everybody I could find on the farm."
Wanda Brandenburg, who lived in a neighboring apartment, said she called 911 at 11:23 p.m. "By that time, I looked out and all I saw was a big ball of orange," she said.
Johnson said he opened as many outside doors of the stalls which surrounded the circular building as he could. "Coals were flying everywhere," he recalled. "It was too hot to go in and get the horses. Some were kicking. Some were screaming. Some managed to get out. I have seen horses die on the racetrack, but this was worse. They were trapped."
"Once it [the fire] got started, there was no stopping it," said John R. Earp Jr., deputy chief state fire marshal.
The fire was brought under control by 1 a.m., but by that time the building was destroyed. Fifty pieces of fire equipment and 150 fire fighters from Frederick and Carroll counties fought the blaze, said Bob Thomas, public relations director of the state fire marshal's office. Thomas said the fire "is not considered suspicious in nature," but he added investigators have not yet pinpointed the cause of the blaze.
Damage is estimated at $500,000.
Gross, 40, a Carroll County contractor who bought Bowling Brook three years ago, said the building was insured for $250,000.
Gross owned no horses but leased stalls to three trainers.
Joanne Weber Sichette had 10 horses stabled there, mostly 2-year-olds, which she trained for a number of clients. All but one of her horses died in the blaze. The surviving horse was shipped to the Marion du Pont Scott Equine Veterinary Hospital in Leesburg, Va., where it is being treated for smoke inhalation.
Sichette, who lives on the farm, declined to talk to reporters.
"These horses were her babies," said Lee Edmunds, a friend of Sichette. "She had just put them to bed about 1 1/2 hours earlier. Many of the people that own them are out of town, and it is all so grisly and gross that she's completely undone."
Samantha Shriner, who works for Sichette, said the younger horses only had nicknames such as Randy, Bo, Pepper, Lana and Buster. But she listed three of the dead older horses as Rare Steak, Dancing Space and Oompah Stan.
Shelly Stone, who works as an exercise rider for trainer Carlos Garcia at Pimlico Race Course, had two horses stabled in the barn.
"This is every horse owner's nightmare," Stone said. Both of her horses, Lusty Leader and Genuine Truth, escaped from their stalls, ran to the neighboring Bowling Brook Boys Home and were found unharmed yesterday morning.
Trainer William Rasche Sr. also had one horse at Bowling Brook. His filly, Tsultry Slew, was sent to the Leesburg hospital where her lungs are being checked for smoke damage, said Rasche's son, Billy.
Gross said the training barn is "virtually irreplaceable. They just don't build barns like this anymore. It is the main reason I bought this place. It's what made Bowling Brook distinctive."