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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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

But Fair Hill was different. It was close to race tracks in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania, "but you felt like you were in the middle of the country," Muffy Trimmer said. A 350-acre complex of horse barns, pastures, and wood-chipped paths, it adjoined more than 5,000 acres of open land, a state-owned nature preserve. Horses could jog the trails for a month, across covered bridges and a well-stocked trout stream, and never see the same place twice. Bald eagles occasionally landed on the railings of the two race tracks there.

The Trimmers were blue-collar horse people, working class. Moving to Fair Hill entailed major sacrifices and a once-in-a-lifetime gamble. Some of the country's premier trainers owned barns in the complex, and sometimes the Trimmers could barely scrape together the rent for their few stalls.

Previously, the Trimmers had kept their horses free of charge at the public tracks but in exchange for agreeing to race there. Most often they were at Suffolk Downs, a small track outside Boston where Trimmer had been based for years. He was a favorite of the local owners (like most trainers, the Trimmers care for but don't own their thoroughbreds); at one point he had more than 30 mounts.

But Trimmer thought that the track was going downhill and that they needed to go elsewhere to make money. They forfeited more than half of those horses in the move, because owners wanted their horses running closer to home. Attracting new owners is always difficult, and Richard knew it would be hard to cultivate business in the Mid-Atlantic, where he was virtually unknown, and where he would be living away from the tracks, the best places to make racing connections.

But the purses were bigger in Delaware, where slot machines had just come in. That draw, coupled with the facilities of Fair Hill, convinced Richard that the move was worth it. They'd produce happier, faster horses - though perhaps fewer of them - and concentrate on bigger races. His reputation for winning would grow.

For the Trimmers, Fair Hill also meant the end of month-to-month rental apartments, with cockroaches and doors that wouldn't close, and moving every season with the races. They wanted a place to raise children - before long, there would be two of them - and a permanent address.

They bought a 13-acre farm in Oxford Amish country, just across the Pennsylvania border, with a pond and an apple orchard.

A rare horse

Their whole existence had been set to the rhythms of hoof beats. They were at Fair Hill every morning by 5, mucking, washing, working the horses, as their children slept in the car. Including Sundays, including Christmas. Within a week after having her first baby, Muffy was riding again. She galloped; her husband timed. Then in the afternoon, it was off to the races at Laurel or Delaware Park, where they brushed coats and braided manes, and prayed for speed.

Lately, the prayers had been paying off. Although they had only two horses - Richard Trimmer's smallest roster in two decades of training - one of them was a petite, intelligent filly who was among the most promising of the hundreds thoroughbreds stabled at Fair Hill. Leesburg Express belonged to a personal-injury lawyer from Massachusetts; Richard had picked her out himself at last year's Timonium yearling sale, hoping she'd grow a little.

She'd stayed tiny - a disappointment. But she was also a cool-headed competitor, the rare horse that gave more at the races than during her morning workouts.

Over the summer, Leesburg won her first race on the turf; in her next race, at Colonial Downs in Virginia, she broke a record and went on in the fall to compete against Breeder's Cup-caliber horses in Canada. In five starts, Leesburg's career winnings totaled $68,000, making her one of the most profitable 2-year-olds Richard had ever trained. And she had years left to run.

Already other trainers had admired her during morning workouts; before long, the owners would take notice of his success with her, and maybe by spring the Trimmers would have a few more horses to race. Until then, Leesburg's earnings would carry them through the dreary winter season.

Then there was their second horse, an unraced colt with a splotch white star on his forehead. He didn't even have a name, so they called him Emblem, after his sire, Our Emblem.

Emblem - who also belonged to the lawyer - had come to Fair Hill last spring, a big, brawling 2-year-old who bucked and reared and gnawed his lead shank. Muffy was as frightened of him as she'd ever been of a horse. He had absolutely no fear of the whip, as if completely desensitized to it. The Trimmers were at a loss about what had happened to this animal, who panicked whenever he was led up to the track.

So they kept him in the open fields for a month, and Muffy galloped him, reminding the horse what it was like to run for the pleasure of it. Birds sang, and Emblem's ears pricked this way and that. One morning they'd chased a herd of whitetail deer together.

Gradually the animal changed beneath her. He no longer rebelled at the track. He began regular workouts, and the Trimmers - who'd only hoped to calm him down a little - were astounded to see that he, too, could run.

His maiden race at Laurel was slated for Nov. 19. That was three weeks after the fire.

Love at first sight

Richard Trimmer first discovered horses from the back seat of his parents' station wagon as it inched through the Staten Island traffic. It was 1973, the year Secretariat won the Triple Crown. The riding stable he glimpsed out the window was a revelation, a shock of green in a paved-over landscape, a piece of the country life he'd imagined but never known. The horses grazing behind the fences were just regular stable nags, but he didn't know that. With their huge eyes and tossing manes, they seemed like the most exquisite beings on Earth.

He decided then that he had to be with them, in that green place. He was 12 years old.

He quit playing baseball with his friends to muck stalls after school and on weekends. Then one day, without instruction or invitation, he simply climbed onto a horse's back.

"Either you love horses or you don't," he would later say. "And if you really love them, there is no fear."

From then on, Trimmer took his pay in trail rides.

His parents - his father was a photo engraver; his mother an insurance company worker - were bewildered by his willingness to give up everything for horses, even his family. After high school graduation, he left home to work as a stable hand at the famous Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Ky. At the time he clipped the help-wanted ad from The Blood-Horse magazine, he'd barely even seen a thoroughbred, except for those thunderous contests at Belmont and Aqueduct, where the horses passed in a blur of bright jockey silks and mud-spattered flesh. And he'd almost never left New York City in his life.

His father drove him down to the bluegrass country.

"I often wondered what he was feeling," Trimmer said. "I'm not sure he wanted me to go."

Still, this was the only life the shy, quiet boy wanted, a feeling confirmed at the breeding farm, where he learned to tend pregnant mares and tear the birth sacs over the newborn foals' noses. Thoroughbreds intoxicated him, with their long legs and arching necks and, above all, their breathtaking speed. To win races, he thought, was the greatest joy of all.

"It's so hard to win," he said. "I didn't realize how hard. But when you do win, you get a huge rush. It's the best feeling in the world."

But when the horses weren't winning - and for small-time trainers like him, they often weren't - life on the race track was lonely and hard. So in 1995 when he met a pretty, straw-blond woman who liked living the same way, it seemed like almost too much to ask for. It was the summer season at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire. Muffy was a local farm girl struggling to make it as a jockey on some of the roughest tracks in the country, too tall for the job but plenty brave.

She started exercising horses for him, and they dated on the racetrack circuit together. They married in a farmhouse within sight of Delaware Park, united in love and in what they loved.

Everything gone

The phone call from Fair Hill came at home that night as Richard Trimmer cut up fruit for his children's dinner. He dropped the knife and bolted out the door.

He was back within an hour, and he and Muffy wept outside on the porch.

Fire took everything: wool blankets and hoof picks, soft-bristled brushes and feed tubs, leather saddles and metal bits. The horses. Their way of life.

The day after the fire, dawn came anyway, breaking over the paddocks and low-slung white barns of Fair Hill, and over the Trimmers' little brick house a few miles away.

Muffy Trimmer stayed in bed. Without race horses to gallop, there seemed no reason to get up. She and Richard had talked about the fire all night, and she still couldn't drive the thoughts from her head.

She could feel their panic, these giants that had shied at the sight of their own shadows, trapped with a blaze that would, within 20 minutes or so, turned the night sky a brilliant orange behind a haze of black smoke.

The thoughts didn't go away. They occurred to her at odd moments in the days and weeks afterward, while she pitched hay to brood mares and riding hacks they kept on the farm, or cracked the ice on the water troughs with a pitchfork, or fed her children breakfast, going through the motions of the daily routine. Which was hardly a routine anymore, with Richard getting up in the middle of the night to truck other trainers' mounts to racetracks up and down the East Coast, in a horse van still painted with his own racing colors. But, with no thoroughbreds in training, how else could they pay the bills?

Muffy can't forget the suffering of Leesburg and Emblem. She wonders whether being locked in a stall - even at a place as beautiful as Fair Hill - is a way for horses to live, instead of staying in the fields all day, where they were born to be.

"I'm not sure how much I like racing anymore," she confessed to Richard recently.

Over the winter, she even began saying that maybe the shipping business could be a new beginning for them. They could make up the extra money by renting their own farm's pastures to injured horses and brood mares, and get out of racing altogether.

Awkward greetings

Except for the site of the burned-down barn - now a smoothed-over mound of dirt - Fair Hill is as lovely as ever early one January morning, as processions of thoroughbreds make their pilgrimage to the race track. The rising sun tips their whiskers with gold and burns along their silhouettes.

Richard Trimmer is there, but not with horses. He is waiting to drive another trainer's mare to the afternoon races at Laurel. As he gets out of the blue truck with the blue-and-white trimmed trailer on the back, a few trainers greet him awkwardly.

"Richie."

"What's going on, Richie?"

They talk to him like always, about yesterday's races and who has run well that morning. But he is a shipper of horses now, and not their equal. An assistant trainer leads a mare into the trailer and hands Richard the racing papers and a water bucket filled with gear. She reminds Trimmer to have a blacksmith check the horse's shoes before the race. Richard nods, throws the locks on his trailer, and drives away.

Twenty minutes later, he is on Interstate 95 idling beside an 18-wheeler belching exhaust and a Coca-Cola truck. Traffic again. He stares blankly through the windshield.

He's not sure he can be happy this way. Being out of the races for just these few more months has given him a sick feeling in his stomach, and the thought that he might never get back is almost unbearable. This is how it happens in the racing business: a run of bad luck, and decent trainers just fade away. He'd risked everything to bring his horses to Fair Hill, and now everything was lost.

Or was it? Some days, he can see his wife's point, that a life away from the track could also be enough. The break from racing had at times felt unexpectedly sweet, particularly the extra hours he has spent with his children, 4-year-old Bruce and 2-year-old Brianna. At Christmas, they went to see a Winnie the Pooh show in New York City, the kind of trip the family hadn't taken in ages.

But his favorite moments are at the farm, in the snug brick house or the corn and alfalfa fields beyond, where his Amish neighbors work their teams of hairy-footed draft horses. He loves watching the kids conduct the business of country children: how Bruce slings his arm over the back of the seat of his miniature tractor, exactly the way a man would, how Brianna disdains her Shetland pony, Strawberry, in favor of her mother's hulking quarter horses. It is the kind of life he ached for as a boy, and now and then over the winter - as ice creeps across the pond, and a new family of owls hoots in the pine trees - a feeling very much like happiness wells up in his heart.

"Sometimes I feel like we have a lot, here on the farm," Trimmer said. "If we had been in an apartment, just Muffy and me, we would have had nothing."

But the fire is never completely out of his mind. Sometimes, it even seems engrained in the consciousness of his children. It is so hard to know what they remember. They woke up at Fair Hill practically every morning of their lives and knew all the horses their mother rode. The night of the fire, he and Muffy weren't sure what to tell them.

What about Leesburg? they wanted to know. What about Emblem?

Finally, Muffy had said that their father had caught his horses and taken them to live on a farm far away.

When their father will be racing horses again is hard to say. An owner Trimmer knows has a few horses that might be ready to run by the late spring. If he can afford to, Trimmer is going to try to return to Fair Hill.

And if he can't - then what? He could start over, sell the farm, travel with the races again.

Or he could settle for shipping, and stay here in deepest horse country, raising a family where he'd come to race the fastest thoroughbreds around.

Renewal

Now Trimmer turns his trailer off Whiskey Bottom Road, into the Laurel Park race course. After dropping off the horse, he stops into an office and hands a woman a check - to renew his training license.

The receipt in his pocket, he walks past the grandstand with its rows of hunched gamblers, and stops at a lonely place along the rail. Leafing through the day's program just before the first race, he sees that a horse named Forgotten Emblem is running: the half-brother of his dead colt.

Trimmer's blue eyes follow as the pack rounds the far turn, dust chasing after the horses, like smoke.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

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