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Local harness trainers and owners donate trailer-full of supplies after Tioga Downs tragedy.
Sparky and Cheri Clarke, formerly based at Cal Expo, lost everything in the barn fire at Tioga Downs, including six horses.
Photo by Jessica Hallett
It’s a care package on wheels with a cross-country message: Horsemen take care of their own.
As they prepared for the Nov. 17 opening of their harness meet, trainers, owners and grooms at Cal Expo gathered donations for horsemen almost 3,000 miles away who had lost everything—including their beloved racehorses.
On Nov. 9, an arsonist set fire to a barn at Tioga Downs in Nichols, New York, near the Pennsylvania border. The inferno totally engulfed the barn in less than three minutes.
All 31 horses in the barn perished. The horses ranged in age from a yearling who had just arrived in the barn the day before the fire to a 22-year-old retiree who served as a harness racing ambassador.
Five trainers who had horses in that barn also lost everything they need to race and do their jobs.
Among the trainers is Edgar “Sparky” Clarke, a Cal Expo fixture before relocating his stable to Florida and New York.
Clarke and his wife, Cheri, desperately tried to rescue their six horses from the barn, including the black yearling they had just bought at the Harrisburg horse auction. Trying to open a metal door, Sparky Clarke suffered second-degree burns to his face, hands and arms, and was hospitalized. Despite their efforts, all six of their horses died in the blaze.
Also killed was a horse that had competed at Cal Expo: SD Watch Me Now, a 5-year-old pacer who had raced to victory 14 times and won more than $150,000. “The prettiest boy in the barn,” said Kayla Morris, wife of trainer Lee Morris, who lost 12 horses in the fire. “He was stunning and super grumpy. He would give you a secret kiss if no one was looking, then pull faces at you.”
Shannon Wright Machovec, a small-time owner at Cal Expo, had horses trained by Sparky Clarke more than 20 years ago. Machovec posted on Facebook that she was organizing a “pack the trailer” event to send donations to the Tioga horsemen.
Cal Expo trainer Rick Bertrand donated the use of his truck and trailer—big enough to fit eight horses—and volunteered to drive. Horse owner Dave Dobbelmann and Bertrand split the cost of the gas.
Just two days after the tragedy, the trailer rolled out of Sacramento on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 11. It was jammed with equipment, horse feed, racing gear and more donations, ranging from bridles to jog carts.
Along the way, Bertrand will make stops in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa at other harness racing tracks and training centers to pick up more donations.
“As competitive as we are on the track, we’re still family,” said Robin Clements, a retired Cal Expo trainer and longtime horse owner, who contributed a jog cart. “These people lost everything. … We don’t have a lot of money, but people stepped up and donated what they could.”
The harness racing community has rallied behind #TiogaStrong. A GoFundMe page raised more than $100,000 in less than 24 hours and now tops $178,000. (Donate at gofundme.com/f/nr8faj.) In addition, Tioga Downs owner Jeff Gural pledged $100,000. Racetrack photographer Jessica Hallett (@JHallettPhoto on X/Twitter) and Jason Rodgers of HarnessLink.com compiled tributes to the lost horses and the courage of the horsemen who tried to save them.
“People across the country are making donations,” Clements said. “This really hit everybody hard.”
Cal Expo opens its own harness racing meet Nov. 17 with a first post of 6:45 p.m. The 47-night meet continues on Fridays and Sundays through May 3.
For details, go to CalXHarness.com.
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