Leading New York owner Carl Lizza hoped to broaden the scope of his mostly homebred racing stable by buying a large number of yearlings in 2001. His hopes perished in a late-afternoon barn fire Feb. 23 that killed 22 horses in training at Mike O'Farrell's Ocala Stud in Florida.
Lizza, who owns Flying Zee Stables and co-owns Highcliff Farm in upstate New York, lost 13 juveniles in the fire. Twelve of the horses he bought at auction and privately, and one was a homebred, according to Suzie O'Cain, who has managed Highcliff Farm for years with her veterinarian husband, Lynwood. She said the horses were worth about $1.3 million.
"The whole industry lost something in that fire," O'Cain said. "The people who work with those horses, the trainers they would have been sent to. I feel badly for Mr. O'Farrell because he does such a good job. We're pretty devastated."
Among Lizza's horses killed in the fire was a $200,000 colt by Grand Slam out of On The Cheek (by The Minstrel) that was bought on the first day of Keeneland's September yearling sale.
Trainer Joe Pierce Jr. and his partner, Janet Laszlo, also lost horses in the fire. Pierce owned all or parts of five, homebred 2-year-olds, and Laszlo lost another horse she owned outright. Pierce and Laszlo, who owns Hunters Run Farm in New Jersey, were partners in two of the horses. Pierce said he lost two horses by Notebook and three by Friendly Lover. None of his horses were insured.
The Ocala Stud Farm fire marked the worst loss of Thoroughbreds in a North American barn fire since Feb. 26, 1994, when 35 were killed at Fonner Park in Nebraska. In July 2001, a barn fire at The Meadows in Pennsylvania killed 28 Standardbreds. On Dec. 27, 1993, 29 horses were killed in a fire at The Manor Farm near Manorville, N.Y., owned by Maud Frank.
Paul Nevels, Marion County Fire-Rescue battalion chief, told the Ocala Star-Banner it was the worst barn fire in North Florida that he could remember.
Rhonda Mack, the farm's insurance agent, speculated that an electric problem caused the Ocala Stud fire, but investigators with the State Fire Marshal's office said it would take several days before an official cause would be determined. Fire officials don't suspect arson, according to the Star-Banner.
The fire reportedly started at about 5:30 p.m. A neighbor spotted the smoke and called firefighters, but 14 mph winds caused the fire to spread rapidly through the long, white wooden barn. The barn was engulfed in flames by the time fire trucks arrived.
Lizza and Pierce are long-time clients of Ocala Stud, and both will continue using the farm to break their young horses.
"I send my horses there every year and will continue," Pierce said. "Unfortunately, things like this happen."