Officials look for cause of track fire Five racehorses killed in blaze at Bally's Ocean Downs

July 22, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

BERLIN -- Fire investigators were poking through the rubble of a stable at Bally's Ocean Downs raceway yesterday, searching for the cause of a blaze that killed five racehorses at Maryland's oldest harness track.

Firefighters from six nearby volunteer companies worked for more than 90 minutes Monday night, successfully containing damage to one building as horsemen and track employees struggled to evacuate almost three dozen horses from adjacent barns.

The loss of the 28-stall stable will not interfere with the track's traditional two-month racing season -- timed in July and August to lure bettors from the beaches during the peak of summer tourism in nearby Ocean City, said raceway president Dennis Dowd. Big crowds are expected this weekend, he said, as the raceway celebrates its 50th anniversary.

"I think horsemen are a resilient lot and we'll go right ahead," Dowd said. "This track has been around a long time and will continue to be. The down side of that, of course, is that these barns are all 50 years old, too."

Workers, owners and track officials speculated that anything from an electrical spark to spontaneous combustion or careless smoking might have touched off the blaze in the wood-frame building, which contained 200 bales of fresh-cut straw. But Rodney Sharpley, an investigator in the state fire marshal's office in Berlin, said no cause has been determined.

The stable area is patrolled every 20 minutes by track employees, and any visitor must sign in at a gatehouse, said Don Codey, the track's chief operating officer.

"It's a devastating thing for people around a track to go through, but basically, you're talking old buildings and a lot of hay," Codey said.

Twelve years ago, Roman Miller, a veteran track worker, was asleep in a nearby barn when fire broke out, forcing him to escape through a stable widow as flames roared through the building, killing 20 horses.

It was Miller who spotted smoke around 9: 30 p.m. Monday as he made his rounds in a golf cart. He yelled to fellow workers and horse owners, then called the fire department. The first of 35 firetrucks and other apparatus arrived within eight minutes. By then, fire was beginning to spread to another stable, he said.

"I got some of the boys up to start trying to get the horses out," Miller said. "Everybody just started moving as fast as possible. It's a credit to the fire companies that they stopped it from spreading."

The building was insured for about $150,000, Codey said, but with costs put at more than $250,000, it will not be replaced.

The owners who lost horses in the blaze were awaiting word yesterday from the Cloverleaf Standard Breed Owners Association, a self-insurance group in the harness industry, on how much they would be compensated for their animals and equipment.

Horses can range in value from $4,000 to $20,000, and a sulky used in harness racing can cost $1,500 or more, said owner Vic Hall.

Hall works full time as the track's operations director and owned two horses with his brother, Roland, a grocery produce manager at a Berlin supermarket. The pair lost one horse in the fire, but another, Lee Buck, was the only animal to be rescued.

"He's the first horse I ever owned," Hall said. "I've had him about seven years now. He might only be worth $4,000, but he's worth $100,000 in your heart."

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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