For Louis Merryman of Anchor & Hope Farm in Port Deposit, Md., the events of Aug. 12 will forever be remembered as a series of numbers.
And it started with 9-1-1.
"I was actually thinking about running up the street to the store," said Merryman's barn manager Heather Cellinesi. "We were all on lunch break and usually it's uneventful. I thought about going up the street to the store but thought, no, I'm too tired. I was in my car sitting next to the mare and foal field which is across our roadway from the barn and I noticed the mares and foals were running around and had their lips up. It caught my attention because it wasn't normal behavior for them."
Stepping out of her car to get a better look at what had sent the horses into a frenzy, Cellinesi noticed what she thought at first to be dust billowing close to the barn.
"I thought it was dust from where they'd been running, but then I realized it was smoke coming from the lower portion of the barn where our two stallions were in their stalls. I ran out of my car, called 9-1-1 in the process, and when I got in the barn I could hear the fire crackling."
Cellinesi reacted on instinct.
As the largest structure on the property, the Anchor & Hope main barn was actually an amalgamation of three barns. Over the years, Merryman and his father, Edwin, had renovated and added to the structure to accommodate the needs of their expanding business. The fire began in the newest portion of the barn, which had recently been outfitted with steel and pine timbers that had been coated in fire retardant. But the slow burn of those initial flames bought Cellinesi little time.
"I got to Imagining first and his stall was where the fire was located," said Cellinesi. "So I popped the pin, threw it open, and yelled at him to get out and he ran. I ran to the next bay for Bourbon Courage . I let him out and then the top portion of the barn was where our yearlings were and we also had three mares with foals by their side up there. I ran up and down the aisles while I'm on the phone with 9-1-1. I'm panicking because I'm by myself and I'm letting everyone out, just pulling pins and throwing stall doors at them and basically screaming at them to run away from me and the situation.
"By that time I had hung up with 9-1-1, I called Louis and was panicking and screaming. I'm sure he couldn't understand what I was saying on the phone but I was more so apologizing that I had let the stallions out. It was so chaotic in the moment."
In total, 18 horses were freed from their stalls by Cellinesi, only to find themselves loose and in a panic on the property. First responders and two Sheriff's deputies arrived moments after the call to emergency services was placed and jumped into action to help Cellinesi round up the terrified Thoroughbreds.
"If she hadn't gotten them out of there none of them would have lived," said Merryman. "It just looked like someone poured gasoline over the whole thing. It was really two barns in an L-shape that met and then there was a huge barn mow that had a poured concrete floor where we stored pretty much everything. What happened is the fire jumped from that new part of the barn to the old part of the barn that my father had renovated about 30 years ago with Oak he had reclaimed out of an old DuPont horse barn in Delaware. When that caught fire it was just an explosion. It got so hot that it ended up taking out the newer end of the barn. It was so quick and once it hit that side it was like a fire bomb."
Close to 50 firefighters from the compilation of fire stations and volunteer services including several from nearby Havre de Grace worked for 60 minutes to bring the blaze under control. Their quick action allowed several outbuildings, including a few extraneous barns, to be saved.
But for Cellinesi, 60 minutes felt like a lifetime.
"We worked over maybe an hour and a half to two hours, Louis and Grace (Merryman) came back home and Edwin, Louis' father—we all worked as a team to round everyone up and check them over," Cellinesi said. "Maybe they fought the fire for an hour, but my timing on the day isn't really clear.
"I called Bourbon Courage first. Imagining was absolutely terrified and trying to get away. I screamed Bourbon's name and he came right to me. The brain that he has blows me away because he knew he was in danger and needed help. Imagining had ran and hid in the woods but I just went around calling them one at a time, counting them all to make sure no one had turned back towards the fire. Luckily we had open paddocks because we had our yearlings in the barn during the day. Unbelievably, there were no injuries. Scratches and bruises, but nothing compared to what it could have been."
What could have been came into clear persepective for the Merrymans when they received the fire department's fire log days later. Cellinesi's initial call to 9-1-1 had come in at 12:26 p.m. When the Sheriff's deputies arrived on the scene they reported that the barn was completely engulfed in flames. The time was 12:31 p.m.
"Honestly, I have no idea how I did it," said Cellinesi. "On a good day I couldn't get 18 horses out of a barn in five minutes. That's not enough time to do anything. But I would do it again. I would never hesitate. The responsibility for me are these horses. I was there, they needed me, and I responded."
In the wake of what could have been a life-changing disaster, Merryman, his family, and his staff are faced with new challenges. While the plan is to begin construction on a new barn as soon as possible, Merryman has more immediate concerns on his mind, mainly, finding homes for eight yearlings rescued from the fire. The youngsters, who were originally intended to go through the auction ring at both the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October Yearlings Sale and Midlantic Fall Yearlings Sale later this season, are now part of what Merryman has dubbed his "Firesale." Seven yearlings—one has already been purchased—are currently for sale to any interested buyers.
"One of my worries is that all of these yearlings were in prep," said Merryman. "They were looking really well and the longer they are out of prep the more field-kempt they're going to look. The other thing is we have some pretty major work ahead of us and I really need to get to work. We were prepping yearlings for other people and I've made arrangements for those to go to other farms. Furthermore we're a breeding farm and we're not really set up to hang on to 2-year-olds so I have to make sure I'm prepared and ready to go for the foaling season.
"It's a tough time. Before this fire we were on a hump," said Merryman, who in addition to Bourbon Courage and Imagining also stands Holy Boss and Long River . The latter two stallions are currently in the Southern hemisphere and were thankfully not on the property during the fire. "It's a family farm and we're all workers. It's me, my wife, both of my parents—we all work here. We're fairly small and I don't have a lot of capital behind me. We were on a hump where it looked like our first two stallions were doing well but we weren't quite at the point where we were seeing much profit from them and then this fire hit."
Three colts and two fillies by Bourbon Courage are currently on offer. The first colt is a chestnut out of the Bowman's Band mare Ava Again, who is from the family of graded stakes winner Gotaghostofachance. Another colt is out of the Street Cry mare Carelaine and is from the female family of sires Sky Mesa and Bernstein.
The first of the two Bourbon Courage fillies is the first foal out of the Student Coucil mare Taylor Jagger, a half sister to stakes winner Meadow Blue. The second filly is out of the Blame mare Angel Park, who is a half sister to Colonial Turf Cup (G3T) winner Summer Doldrums.
"Like I said, Bourbon Courage is very smart," said Cellinesi. "These yearling of his are just the same. They're so smart and it's an awesome group. I'm upset that we can't get them to the sale but people will see them, they'll get out there, and they're going to do good things."
Merryman also offers one colt by Imagining, whose first crop are 2-year-olds of this season. The yearling is out of the Great Notion mare Second Line, who is a full sister to multiple stakes winner Jazzy Idea.
Rounding out the offerings is a colt by Mineshaft out of the Broken Vow mare Elusory. The colt has seen some significant updates as of late. The colt's half brother, Tappin Cat, placed second in the Aug. 17 Star de Naskra Stakes at Laurel Park and his second dam, Counterpoise, is a half sister to Alternate, dam of $1 Million TVG Pacific Classic (G1) winner Higher Power.
"The Mineshaft colt is quite striking and we had someone here tell us our picture online of him doesn't do him justice," said Merryman. "He's pretty fancy."
With one yearling sold and the number of showings increasing with passing days, Merryman is hopeful that he will be able to move them all on to second homes so that he can concentrate his efforts on the task at hand: rebuilding.
"I'm sleeping about an hour and a half a night and other than that I'm up sending emails," said Merryman. "We have a barn builder who worked with my father and has done some projects for me as well. He's the one that renovated our barn that burnt down. I called him right after the fire and said, 'I know you're busy, do you think you could fit me in?' and he said, 'We are very busy but for that we can push some things aside and get you guys up and running.'"
While the numbers for any outsider may be staggering, the only thing the Merrymans and Cellinesi plan on counting in the future is their blessings.
"There were so many things about the day. We sit back and think about all the horses that could have been inside," said Cellinesi. "I could have had four stallions, mares, and foals, it could have been February, and we could have had newborns. To look at everything and say there is a silver lining, it's hard to think but when I look at Imagining back on the farm, I see Bourbon Courage, and all of our yearlings ... it's a blessing that everyone is alive and OK. The Merrymans are wonderful people and have treated me like family even before this happened. The overwhelming gratitude after this incident that they show to me daily—they are beyond wonderful people. I could never thank them enough.
"The barn will be rebuilt. Our days are now much different than they were but we're getting by. You do what you have to do. Just another day at the office."