Ranch hand Peter Evsich, 55, sat in his pickup truck smoking a cigarette Sunday afternoon while watching over the smoldering ruins of a horse barn, with 23 dead horses somewhere under the barn’s collapsed metal roof.
The Thoroughbreds were part of a group housed in a barn at the Mercury Equine Center off Russell Cave Road. The fire started just after midnight and may have been due to lightning or an electrical issue, said owner Eric Reed.
Evsich and five other employees ran into the wooden barn to save the animals, said Reed, who was also on the scene as the fire raged. One of the rescuers didn’t take time to dress before jumping in half naked to save the horses, Reed said. A total of 13 horses were saved, including one named Old Fashioned, valued at well over $100,000, one of the ranch hands said.
“They were heroes, the people who work for me,” Reed said. “They went above and beyond what I could even imagine anybody trying to do. We ran into the barn, the smoke was so black we couldn’t even see. The only thing you could see was the flames.”
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Most of the horses were yearlings who “were very well-bred,” Reed said. One of the horses killed included a 3-year-old filly who had recently won $100,000 in a stakes race, Reed said. Between the horses and the value of the barn, more than $2 million was lost in the fire, he said.
“I’ll never get this nightmare out of my mind,” Reed said.
Evsich has worked at Mercury for nine years doing every job imaginable. On Sunday afternoon, he helped identify each dead horse and to monitor the scene of the fire to make sure the wind did not kick up more flames.
“It’s a tragedy,” Evsich said. “One was supposed to go racing tomorrow up in Ohio.”
In February 2015, a fire at Chanteclair Farm in Versailles killed six Thoroughbred horses. Eight other Thoroughbreds died in a fire in May 2014. The horses perished in a barn listed as the John T. Ward Stables located behind Keeneland Race Course and across Rice Road from Keeneland Gate 3.
Reed spent Sunday afternoon notifying the owners of the horses who live in California, Texas, and Ohio, among others. Reed believes that more horses could have been saved if the fire department had arrived sooner.
“There’s a fire station five minutes down the road but it took 39 minutes before they could get there to help us,” Reed said. “We actually called 911 twice asking where is the fire department. It’s absolutely unacceptable. … The fire department really let us down.”
On Monday afternoon, Mayor Jim Gray’s spokeswoman, Susan Straub, said that an analysis of 911 records showed that it took about 20 minutes for the fire department to be dispatched and arrive at Mercury.
“We continue to investigate the amount of time it took for the firetrucks to be dispatched,” Straub said. “Once dispatched, it took the trucks approximately 13 minutes to reach the scene. Fire Department administration maintains that is a reasonable time, given road conditions and weather.”
The Mercury Equine Center spans 60 acres, and has three large barns with 160 stalls. The center was home to about 70 horses before the fire.
Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso