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‘Just amazing’: Will Rogers Downs recovery is group effort

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Dr. Vickie Heidlage, track veterinarian at Will Rogers Downs, got the call at 1:30 a.m. CDT Sunday, about two hours after a tornado hit the Claremore, Okla., facility and caused extensive damage on the backside.

“We were there until 4, doing triage with no power, no water,” Heidlage told Horse Racing Nation on Monday. “A tremendous amount of damage.”

Tornado hits Will Rogers Downs; 1 horse dies, others are moved

The horses were moved to about eight barns that weren’t severely damaged.

Heidlage returned home and “was mainly on the phone for hours trying to get all of this coordinated. …

“Then I went back over and started checking back on people. I was there pretty much all day yesterday, inspecting, tranquilizing horses to get on the vans that didn’t want to go on the vans that kind of thing. Trying to get everybody out of there.”

With widespread damage in northeast Oklahoma, options were limited.

“Claremore was shut down. It was difficult getting up and down the roads from the damage,” she said. “I did the best I could, and as soon as daylight came I had several horses that I needed to send to a referral clinic.”

Some of the barns still had water, she said, and about 40 horses remained at Will Rogers on Sunday night with plans to evacuate them Monday.

“One trainer, all his equipment and everything cannot be found. And another trainer is moving his (horses) home, but he’s currently running at Lone Star and had horses in stake races today.”

Colleen Davidson is married to trainer Brent Davidson and oversees their stable at Will Rogers. Thinking the worst had passed, she had gone to bed in their travel trailer at the track when the storm hit.

“When I woke up, it was too late,” she said. “The glass and stuff was smashing through my house and I couldn’t get out and I just went in there and said, I hope the good Lord’s looking out for me because this ain’t going to be good. And luckily it lifted my trailer up and swung it side to side but it did not flip it.”

One of their 11 horses at the track had to be euthanized Sunday night because of a broken neck.

“Our barn took a really bad beating on the stalls,” Davidson said. “Not only did it rip the roofs, in our barn, the first six stalls were demolished. And so they’re figuring that (the tornado) had to have lifted these horses out through the roof, especially the one with a broken neck. Because they found him in a barn over. And he was traumatized and whatnot. And so we had to get him, which, no one’s there. It’s the middle of the night. And they make him comfortable. And then he went to the clinic yesterday. And they called me last night that he broke two vertebrae in his neck. Just a bad deal all over.”

Heidlage said about 230 horses were on the backside, and most have been moved to Fair Meadows in Tulsa, about 30 miles away. Had the barns been full, there could have been as many as 650.

She coordinated the transfer of many of the horses to Fair Meadows, where racing begins June 5.

“There were a lot of stalls that were ready,” Heidlage said. “And for the sheer safety of it all they asked for the horsemen to be evacuated to Tulsa and I made arrangements so that could be done. We had a number of trainers that lost their horse trailers. Yeah, so we had an outpouring of support.”

Sunday morning, Heidlage got in touch with Clayton McCook, president and veterinary officer of the Oklahoma Large Animal First Responders. He arrived in Tulsa at around 6 a.m. on Sunday and triaged the horses from Will Rogers.

“We did a walkthrough a couple of hours after we got there,” McCook said. “And we counted 125 at Fair Meadows, and I’m not 100 percent sure if all of those came from Will Rogers.

McCook said the situation at the track “was very organized. They did a great job. Everybody kind of knew where the horses were supposed to go, people were there setting up, bedding stalls, getting equipment ready. … The vast majority of the horses, like 95, 98 percent of them, were not injured, which is just amazing. If you look at the pictures of Will Rogers, it’s shocking to think that that relatively few number of horses were injured.

“So most of them were fine, they were just being put in their stalls and getting settled in. So we had an idea of whose horses were injured and when they were coming in, so we kind of knew, OK, we’ve got a trailer coming with these, this one particular horse or these two horses. What we did is just try to get them over, clean their wounds, evaluate them, and then make decisions whether they were going to shelter in place and be treated there or be referred to (the veterinary medical hospital at) Oklahoma State (University) in Stillwater.”

Davidson, Heidlage and McCook all remarked on the generosity and support that assisted their efforts.

“We were very fortunate yesterday,” Heidlage said. “We had a number of people that volunteered and got us in and out. The RV park took a direct hit as well. And there were a number of RVs there. Most of the horsemen that were staying on at Claremore that were going to run at Tulsa had RVs there, and they’ve lost basically everything.”

“You can’t imagine the help,” Davidson said. “There was a feed company that sent eight tons of feed. They sent hay. They come from Dallas with loads of stuff. You just can’t even imagine the outpouring of our people. You know, the racetrack family is a big, strong family. We’re competitive. But I’m going to tell you what, when somebody’s down, we’re down. And we all come together.”

At Fair Meadows, “there were a lot of volunteers there,” McCook said. “There were a lot of people that had come in that live locally and just volunteered their truck and trailer to haul those horses. A lot of the horsemen lost their trailers. I talked to one trainer who had four trailers on the backside, and they were all destroyed. I don’t even know if he had found one of them at that point.

“(It’s the) typical Oklahoma standard, the way people just stand together,” he said. “So there were a lot of people that showed up to help transport the horses. And I looked around and people are delivering water, people showed up with a bunch of pizzas. Buckets, feed, some guy just pulled up with a gooseneck trailer full of feed and started handing it out. High school kids delivering hay bales. Just amazing to see that.”

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