Randy Weidner knew the horse was his the instant he saw the yellow wrap on its leg. Standing amid the rubble of the Celestial Acres Training Center near Moore, Okla., destroyed by Monday’s massive tornado, the racehorse trainer understood there was only one thing he could do.
Dead and dying horses lay all over the property, Weidner said, and sheriffs were shooting the gravely injured. His own young horse was among them, still wearing the bandage placed on its leg that morning. “I knelt over him,’’ Weidner said through tears Wednesday, “and I tried to kiss him goodbye.”
Weidner, a native of Rosemount who races at Canterbury Park, lost all 12 horses he had stabled at Celestial Acres. They were among as many as 100 horses killed or unaccounted for at the training center, which housed quarter horses and thoroughbreds racing at Remington Park in Oklahoma City. Weidner and his girlfriend, Lindsay White, who lived in an apartment at the stable, also lost their truck, trailer, equipment and all of their personal belongings to the EF5 tornado that took 24 human lives.
Their friends in the Minnesota racing community now are working to ensure they do not lose their livelihood, too. In addition to setting up a fund to help the couple, some horse owners plan to transfer horses to Weidner’s stable, and others have pledged to give him 50 percent of their horses’ earnings during the Canterbury season. Horsemen’s groups also are meeting Saturday to set up fundraisers.
When Weidner arrives at the Shakopee track later this week, one horse already will be in his barn. A 3-year-old quarter horse named Track A Tac, new to his stable, already had been shipped to Canterbury by his Arizona owners. As Weidner grieved the loss of so many well-loved animals, he found comfort in knowing another was waiting for him, in a place where horses and hope intersect daily.
“Somebody was looking at the pile of horses stacked up [in the tornado’s aftermath] and said, ‘Thankfully, it was just horses,’ ” said Weidner, a past president of the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Association. “Those horses are our family.
“We had the best stable we’ve ever had. Now we’re rebuilding. We’ll just try to keep doing what we know how to do.’’
The Facebook page for Orr Family Farm, adjacent to Celestial Acres Training Center, said Wednesday that 34 horses survived the tornado and are in “good to excellent” health. Weidner said one barn was left standing. Four barns, an indoor arena and several paddocks were destroyed.
Weidner lost 10 racehorses, as well as his pony horse — used to escort racehorses to the track — and White’s show-jumping horse. They were finishing their first season racing at Remington Park, with plans to ship one trailerload of horses to Canterbury on Tuesday and another next week.
Monday afternoon, Weidner and White were getting a tire changed when they heard the first storm warnings. Shortly after they returned to the training center, they saw the tornado approaching. They began preparing to load horses into their trailer and take them to safety, but a storm-chasing crew at the farm told them there was no time.
“They turned around as they were driving out and said, ‘You guys need to get out of here,’ ” Weidner recalled. “As we were driving, we could see the tornado in our rearview mirror. It was coming right down the road we were driving out on. By the time we got to the freeway two miles away, they were already saying it had wiped out Celestial Acres.”
They rode out the storm at a friend’s home. On TV, an aerial shot of the training center showed that the barn they and their horses lived in was gone. They returned to the grim scene about 90 minutes after the tornado hit, immediately finding the horse whose leg Weidner had treated so carefully, in the hope that he could start his racing career soon.
Weidner said he and White had “minimal” insurance and will rely on their savings and donations as they rebuild their business and their lives. News of their loss spread quickly among racehorse trainers and owners, and their phones immediately began ringing with offers of help. “We’re a big small family,” said Kelvin Childers, current president of the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Association.
Wednesday, Weidner and White walked through the area near the training center to look for any belongings they could salvage before heading to Minnesota. Two more horses are shipping from Texas to join Weidner’s Canterbury stable, but he said his small string may not be ready to race until July.
“It’s going to be a rough go,” he said. “But it will be good to be at my home track. The Minnesota horse community is a tight family, and people are trying to pull together for us. We’ll have our friends and family to help us.”