Rebuilding from the Ground Up

Nearly a year after 12 horses died in the barn fire at the South Florida Training Center, trainer Roman Lopez is back and, perhaps, stronger than ever.

by Tom Pedulla

It was 10 p.m. last March 16 when trainer Roman Lopez received the phone call that almost surely saved his life.

He was sleeping in the tack room at Barn 9 at the South Florida Training Center in Lake Worth, FL, when Donna Duer, his girlfriend, phoned from her home in Georgetown, KY. She wanted to see how his day had gone and to let him know she missed him.

As they chatted, Lopez heard a commotion outside his closed door. He told her he suspected there was a loose horse and needed to put the phone down for a minute. He never returned.

“When I opened the door, the smoke came,” said Lopez. “I couldn’t even see my hands.”

Flames and smoke were everywhere as Lopez worked to save as many horses by freeing them from their stalls. But he quickly realized that his effort was largely in vain because the terrified horses quickly retreated to the familiarity of home, believing that to be their only safe haven.

Lopez had no choice but to make sure he saved himself.

“When you see the fire is so hot,” he said, “there is not a lot you can do.”

By the time the two-alarm fire was extinguished in the barn shared by Lopez and Tom Haughton, both trainers had suffered devastating losses.

Haughton could not be reached for comment for this story, but Lopez said, “I lost everything, from equipment to every horse. It was a crazy thing.”

Lopez had worked long and hard to build a strong reputation since he took out his trainer’s license in 1987. He initially arrived in the United States from his native Mexico to be a bull-rider before injuries sustained at an event in San Antonio in 1979 forced him to explore other options.

He said of his introduction to harness racing, “It was a second chance at life.”

Lopez did everything possible to embrace that second chance, learning whatever he could about the care of standardbreds while developing into a capable driver.

“He’s very hard working. He’s a great caretaker,” said Mitch Frair, one of Lopez’s clients. “His honesty and integrity are among the most important assets he has.”

Lopez played an integral role in the development of Resolve, winner of the $1 million Yonkers International Trot last October in a world-record 2:23.4 for the mile-and-a-quarter contest. When Resolve was two, Lopez guided him to a track record of 1:55.2 in a division of the Kindergarten Classic Series at Tioga Downs in Nichols, NY, and knew he had something special on his hands. Lopez said he told the owners, “Don’t ever sell this horse.”

But they did sell. Hans Enggren had been captivated by Resolve the moment he saw him at the South Florida Training Center, and his dogged, months-long pursuit was ultimately successful. Enggren turned over Resolve’s care to Ake Svanstedt.

“It was a big disappointment,” Lopez said. “But what are you going to do?”

It was one thing to lose a big horse. But to start from nothing after the fire?

Lopez credits the racing community for rallying to his side at a time of great need. He said that is typical of the spirit that exists from owners to grooms.

“When something happens to somebody, all of us will try to help any way we can,” he said, adding, “I met so many good people through this. Even strangers, you can see they feel your pain.”

Lopez’s overwhelming sense of loss was soon replaced by a determination to rebuild his operation as quickly as possible.

“He stayed strong through all of it. He’s a fighter. He comes right back swinging,” Duer said. “I’m in awe of his ability and what he does every day. He’s an amazing person.”

Frair was the first to send him a new horse.

“He stuck by me on the bad days and the good ones,” Lopez said. “He is the greatest friend to me through all this.”

Lopez expressed his appreciation to all of the owners who gave him new stock. His operation has been restored to approximately the size it was before. He now works with 15 horses, 11 of them 2-year-olds, at Southern Oaks Training Center in Sorrento, FL. He is preparing campaign most of them at Vernon Downs in Vernon, NY.

Lopez is particularly enthusiastic about Boxing Glove, believing the 2-year-old trotter can be “very special.” His mood has gone from downcast to upbeat.

“I think I have a better barn than ever,” he said. “I think I have good horses.”

According to Lopez, the tragedy changed him for the better. “I appreciate life more. I understand people more. I appreciate horses more,” he said. “You see the whole world differently — in a good way.”

Still, memories of the hot flames, the dense smoke, the horses that retreated to their deaths, will never leave him.

“I think Roman will be fine, but I don’t think he will ever be the same,” Frair said. “As much as he tries to get over it, it will always be in the back of him mind that he lost those horses.”