The Trimmers lives were bound up with the horses they trained at Fair Hill. A deadly blaze leaves them struggling to rediscover joy and a sense of worth.

Barn fire leaves dreams in smoke

February 12, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

Three days after the fire, the barn cat came back, dazed but well enough to lick carefully at a tin can of food and stare at the black, flattened remains of his home. Smoke still rose from the ashes, like wisps of breath.

By then a backhoe had lifted out the bodies of the 24 thoroughbreds. They were trucked from the meadows of Fair Hill to the Cecil County landfill and buried on the third day before dawn, the hour when the barn would just have been waking up, the grooms heaving bales of hay, the exercise riders waiting with their whips and helmets.

Some of these people - workers from the burned-down stable, and also the training center's 16 other barns - were there Nov. 1, the night of the fire. They stood together in its hot glow, their shoulders still draped with the halters and rope they'd come running with, ready to catch loose horses, but finding only three stories of flame.

Among the onlookers was a tall, fair-haired man with a blank look in his blue eyes: Richard Trimmer. The 44-year-old trainer stared vaguely into the flapping, 30-foot blaze, as though searching for a sign of something, even though he'd known by the violent color of the sky over the pastures that his two horses were gone, and had called his wife from the road to tell her so.

Another trainer stepped out of the crowd and put his arms around Trimmer's broad shoulders.

"Richard," the man said, "I'm sorry."

Trimmer didn't respond. He could think only of his horses: Leesburg Express, a fine-boned filly - one of the fastest he'd ever had - who moved like a freight train, and the rogue colt called Emblem, who had just begun to run. Trimmer spent his days in barns and along race track railings, watching them, envisioning what they could mean for him and his family. He knew their bodies like his own, understood the story of pain behind a hairline fracture in a hoof, the barest hint of heat in a fluted ankle. But suffering on this scale was beyond his comprehension.

So was the thought that his training career might not recover from this. It seemed like everything had ridden on two horses in that barn, one of whom was already a stakes winner and promised much more. They embodied not just his income and the culmination of his training philosophy, but also his source of joy, and his sense of self. Without horses, who would he be?

Other men asked these questions that night. Seven trainers lost horses in the fire at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, the cause of which is under investigation. Property damage - the cost of the barn and the animals - was estimated at $1 million. But there is no way to calculate the harm done to working-class horsemen like Trimmer, whose lives were based in this bucolic racing community in northern Maryland, and whose hopes rested on the backs of their thoroughbreds.

Through the windows, the burning barn glowed an arterial red. The roof would soon collapse. Trimmer shook off the other trainer's embrace, walked back to his pickup truck and drove away.

A few days after the fire, a small memorial sprang up beside the ruined stable: wildflowers in a water bucket, a sack of perfect apples. Someone left a circle of black-eyed Susans, which resembled the floral mantels the Preakness winners wear.

But this was a funeral wreath.

Joy of winning

Happiness. That's what makes a thoroughbred run, not the love of winning, or the fear of the whip.

That was always his philosophy, anyway. He believed it strongly enough to shape his life, and his family's, around the horses' needs. He didn't hire stable hands, partly because he couldn't afford it, but also because he insisted on being close to the thoroughbreds, knowing their moods and paranoias, the individual temperament of each.

His greatest joy was winning races. In that sense, he always felt that his happiness was bound up with theirs - although the fire tested that belief.

It was for the horses that Trimmer and his wife and partner, 34-year-old Muffy, came to the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton six years ago. They'd spent most of their careers in stables attached to small-time, rough-and-tumble race courses throughout the Northeast, many of them dirty, urban facilities with outcroppings of rusty trailers and gloomy barns where emergency sirens wailed and train horns blasted at all hours, startling the horses. Worst of all, the earth at these facilities was usually paved over with concrete, so the only places to run were the race tracks.

Young horses - many of them fresh from the farms of their birth - often grew bored and anxious in this atmosphere, "and then they hated to run," Trimmer says.

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