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

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One horse died after a tornado struck Will Rogers Downs in Claremore, Okla., on Saturday night, and horses who were stabled there were being moved Sunday to Fair Meadows in nearby Tulsa and other locations.

Danielle Barber, executive director of the Thoroughbred Racing Association of Oklahoma, said Sunday one horse had been euthanized. “But looking at that barn area, I’m very thankful. It could have been a lot worse,” she told Horse Racing Nation.

She didn’t know how many were injured.

Travis Noland, director of communications for Cherokee Nation Entertainment, which owns the track as well as the neighboring casino and RV campground, said all 14 barns on the backside had damage, and 10 had “significant” damage.

He said the roof of the grandstand also was damaged. This was verified in a Facebook video posted by trainer Stacey Capps.

Tulsa-based Green Country Arabian Horse Association, whose president Jessie Holland was at Will Rogers Downs on Sunday, reported on its Facebook page that “there are still 65 horses trapped in the barns (with) three missing and one dead horse so far.”

The tornado caused widespread damage in northeast Oklahoma, according to a statement from government leaders who reported downed trees, power lines and damage to homes and buildings. At least 23 people were injured in Claremore with three suffering life-threatening injuries, according to city manager John Feary.

“Significant, significant damage,” Feary told reporters Sunday afternoon. “Things and damage that change people’s lives forever.”

Trainer Tim Dixon was at Will Rogers on Sunday and told HRN, “Five or six barns are severely damaged, several horse trailers are blown away, and we’re having to get those horses off the track because of the water situation and power. No water, no power. Horses have got to have some fans, and they’ve got to have some water.

“So they’re evacuating them now to Fair Meadows,” he said, referring to the track about 30 miles to the southwest where a new meet will start June 5. “Tulsa’s letting them come on in early and bed down there. So that’s where we’re in the process now is moving horses from Claremore to Tulsa.”

Barber said she was told about 200 horses were at the track, noting that the Will Rogers meet ended May 15. “Thankfully, we didn’t have a whole barnful.”

“Definitely, by the looks of those barns, some of them are cut up, scraped up, beat up and got loose, and had to catch them and all that,” Dixon said. “It’s major. That track’ll be a long time getting back put together.”

The Oklahoma Large-Animal First Responders, led by Oklahoma City University veterinarian Dr. Clayton McCook, arrived at Fair Meadows on Sunday afternoon to examine and treat injured horses arriving from Will Rogers, according to a Facebook posts. At least five horses in bad shape were shipped 70 miles west to Oklahoma State University.

“We are currently triaging horses affected by the Claremore tornado, and the worst affected will be sent to the OSU veterinary medical hospital at Stillwater,” the OLAFR said in its post. “Why? Because they have not only excellent facilities and veterinarians but also run the OSU animal-relief fund, which covers treatment costs. If you want to and are able to assist, making a donation to that fund will assist greatly.”

Dixon said he had about 15 horses at Will Rogers after some already had been moved to Shreveport, La.

Capps, who raced a quarter horse Sunday at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, drove by Will Rogers Downs and shot videos that were posted to Facebook.

“It was sure something to see so many trucks and trailers just pulling up to barns and loading horses and tack and whatever was not perished and getting every horse out of there and to Tulsa,” Capps wrote. “When horsemen fall on hard times man do they all show up.”

Trainer Colleen Davidson also used Facebook to post photos of the damage.

Barber said Fair Meadows and many others helped with the evacuation efforts.

“Fair Meadows stepped up to the plate and did a great job by taking some of these horses in,” she said. “L&R Livestock donated eight tons of feed. (Oklahoma barrel racer) Leslie Smalygo donated some shavings, and she donated some 50 fans. A lot of people have stepped up to the plate and have really, really helped. They don’t have to do that, so we’re real thankful for that.”

An unknown number of trailers and RVs parked at the KOA campground that shares the Cherokee Casino property with Will Rogers Downs were damaged or destroyed, according to witnesses. Many visitors took cover in a storm shelter while the tornado tore through the parking lot packed with camper vehicles for Memorial Day weekend.

“There’s a lot of horsemen that have lost trailers, they’ve lost their RVs, lost cars,” Barber said.

Some of the campground damage was photographed by Capps.

A rodeo scheduled Sunday evening at Will Rogers Stampede Arena three miles west of the racetrack was canceled.

“It’s just kind of a bad deal,” Dixon said. “We’ll work through it one way or another. If all the horsemen stick together, we’ll be all right.”

The Associated Press reported that the line of storms that hit Oklahoma and Texas killed at least five people and left thousands of people without power.

The National Weather Service confirmed tornadic debris detection in Claremore on Saturday at 11:28 p.m. CDT. Its Tulsa office reported damage consistent with an EF-3 tornado, meaning wind velocity of at least 136-165 mph.

At least 20 people in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas were killed in the storm system, according to the Associated Press. About 500,000 customers from the Southwest to the lower Great Lakes lost electrical power because of the severe weather.

Additional reporting came from HRN’s Ron Flatter.

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