An apartment dweller at Eglinton Ave. and Leslie St. spotted it first: a tower of smoke rising above Sunnybrook Park early Monday morning.
Toronto police said they were called to the scene around 3 a.m. to respond to a “working fire” at Sunnybrook Stables. When the first of approximately 50 firefighters arrived, the flames were “visible and through the roof,” Toronto Fire acting platoon Chief Glenn Sherwood said.
He called the response a “defensive operation.”
The main barn was completely engulfed, with a second beginning to catch fire. All 16 horses in the main barn died. Thirteen horses were saved and transported to the Toronto police mounted unit’s stables at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds.
By midday, firefighters had the blaze under control. The red rooftop and wooden walls of the historic barn had been entirely destroyed, leaving behind the charred and structurally unsound foundations of the popular riding school.
Fire crews continued to douse hot spots in the smouldering ruins throughout the day, as police kept a large portion of the park closed to search for horses that were thought to have fled during the fire.
Members of the city’s equestrian community, and others passing through the park on the Victoria Day holiday, stopped to mourn the loss of the animals and the services they provided.
Sunnybrook Stables has been a public horse-riding facility in the park since 1978. In 1982, a 12,000-square-foot indoor arena was built to allow for year-round equestrian programs. The horses took part in day camps for children, adult riding lessons and equestrian competitions.
Upon hearing the news Monday morning, Autumn Blanchard, a horse trainer, drove in from Newmarket. She estimates around 10 of the horses her family leases for riding lessons at the stables died in the fire.
“We just want to have a look,” said Blanchard, 20, tears streaming down her face.
Some of the horses had been at the barn as long as 10 years, Blanchard said.
“It’s really rough. It’s terrible,” she said. “A couple of horses I actually trained myself and I’ve known them for a long time. It’s really hard hearing that kind of news this morning.”
Richard Sutton also learned of the fire first thing in the morning. “I started crying,” he said. “I started denying it. It was really terrible.”
Sutton has been going to the stables for five years. The first horse the 14-year-old ever rode there, Mr. T, died in the fire.
“He was just lovely,” Sutton said. “He’s this very old man. He was sort of slow but at the same time everyone loved him and they all appreciated him very much. He was just such a loving animal.”
Gifford, an old horse Sutton described as “a little puppy,” also died in the fire. He would perk up his ears, Sutton said, when someone tried to pet him.
Sutton said his instructors are heartbroken because “their livelihoods were built around those horses.”
“A lot of them have been with the horses far longer than I have and they’ve seen certain ones come and go, but when you lose one you’ve been with for so long, it’s such a horrible situation,” he said.
Laura Bobak has been taking her 13-year-old son, Jacob Marr, to the stables for five years, and was devastated by the news. The kids did more than just ride the horses, she told the Star. “They took care of them. They would groom them, pick out their hooves …they’d wash them.”
“Anyone who spent any time there would become very attached to them,” she said. “We spent hours talking about them. They all had a different personality.”
Kathleen Bowman, a stablehand at Sunnybrook, told the Star the stable usually has a staff member on duty to check the horses overnight. Toronto police Sgt. Sean Cosgrove said he couldn’t comment when asked whether there were workers present when the fire broke out.
Bowman said the arena had a sprinkler system but Sherwood told media there weren’t any sprinklers in the barns, as far as he was aware.
Sherwood said the barn was a “complete loss” and not enough of it was left to immediately determine where the fire started.
More horses could have perished, he added, if it weren’t for the timely response from Toronto police and fire services. “If it wasn’t the fire, the smoke would have been toxic,” Sherwood said.
More ground could have caught fire, too: the stables are in the middle of a forested area, with several wooden structures close by. Bits of the trees adjacent to the main barn were charred, Sherwood said.
The Office of the Fire Marshal is investigating the cause of the fire.
“I know people who will say to me, ‘They’re just animals,’ but horses make some really, really deep connections with people,” Sutton said. “… It honestly feels like losing people.”