‘Nightmare’ at San Luis Rey Downs leaves pain, promise in wake

What did San Luis Rey endure in those fateful hours on Dec. 7 as the fire ambushed stalls holding about 450 horses? Animal hide was discovered on an aluminum gate along the track’s inside rail — far from the flames — a jarring sign of the chaos that swirled.

Outside of Barn E, the car of trainer Martine Bellocq was gutted by flames so white-hot that the wheel rims melted into molten puddles as its driver rushed to save as many horses as possible. Bellocq suffered second- and third-degree burns over 50 percent of her body.

Near Barn L, someone jumped from a feed truck to fight the fire before the vehicle was engulfed along an open roadway — reduced to nothing more than frame and axles.

Trainer Peter Miller, who had been working at Los Alamitos, was forced to wait outside San Luis Rey for an hour as police locked down the area. When he finally navigated his way onto the still-burning property, he was stunned by the scene.

“It was like a nightmare,” said Miller, an Encinitas resident who had more than 75 horses stabled at the facility. “Like a living nightmare. Words can’t describe seeing the horses in their stalls. The smoke and the fire were still going. It was surreal.

“It was worse than I ever could have imagined. Much worse.”

The chilling setting horrified Leandro Mora, too. The assistant to trainer Doug O’Neill, who molded Kentucky Derby winners Nyquist and I’ll Have Another, held onto a pair of horses as he coughed and weighed it all through stinging eyes.

“Right then, two horses ran by,” said Mora, a 40-year veteran who paused at the memory. “They were burned from end to end, the hair was gone and they were screaming. That’s the moment when I made the decision to let our horses go.

“That’s going to be in my brain the rest of my life. That’s ugly. Ugly stuff.”

Kevin Habell, San Luis Rey’s general manager, pulled a small, stuffed horse with a handwritten note pinned to it from the back of his truck while touring the charred site Thursday. Workers said the gift was dropped at the gate of the 240-acre facility by a young girl.

May these sweet angels run free around God’s track

So sorry for your loss

Our thoughts and prayers are with you all

Your Bonsall neighbors

“Oh man, I’m going to cry again,” Habell whispered.

The fire burned out. The human spirit? Hardly.

‘Images will never go away’

So many horses were involved that it quickly became a confusing and overwhelming scene – for humans and animals alike. California Diamond, a Miller-trained star who won nearly $500,000, had been set free during the fire, only to return to his stall and an unwitting death sentence.

“That’s their home,” Miller reasoned. “He was one of the coolest, neatest, kindest, gamest horses I’ll ever have. When I saw him in there, my heart sank.”

The night of the fire, Miller visited neighboring Trifecta Farms. Rumblings circulated that Conquest Typhoon, the 2014 winner of the Del Mar’s Cecil B. DeMille Stakes, had found his way there.

“He was unrecognizable,” said Miller, staring at the ground. “His head was swollen and the hair was singed. It was horrific. Those images will never go away.”

Potenza and Huggons triaged Conquest Typhoon, smothering him in silver-and-white burn ointment and love. Potenza’s sister stayed overnight to feed the horse applesauce and grain-mash soup. On Thursday, he bounced around the edge of hospital stall while gobbling up bananas.

The veterinarians helped walk horses down Camino del Rey to Trifecta Farms. Jumping in proved critical, because blocked roads made it impossible for horse-hauling vehicles to reach the track.

At one point, Potenza and an equine hospital intern drove past a police barricade with lights flashing in pursuit.

“I understand what they were doing,” Potenza said. “They’re worrying about human life first. They said humans were the main concern. I said, ‘Not for us.’ ”

Potenza and the others were able to lead about 100 horses away from the fire that burned so intensely it melted restroom porcelain, meaning the temperature exceeded 3,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

“If (all involved) don’t react like that, they lose 200 horses,” Del Mar spokesman Mac McBride said.

David Jerkens, Del Mar’s racing secretary, jumped in: “At least.”

“It could have been one of the greatest horse tragedies in the history of this country,” McBride said.

The veterinarians sewed up lacerations under headlamps, leveraging unique detective work to identify horses. They figured out one by pinpointing specific shoeing nails imported from Europe.

“One cool story,” Potenza said. “We had just discharged a little filly with colic that morning. I found her that night, around 10:30, and recognized a catheter incision. She let me lead her all the way back with just bailing twine.”

Yet in that horrible wake, goodness refuses to relent.

Horse owner Joe Ciaglia bought 200 pairs of shoes to give to displaced workers. An anonymous donor cut a check for $28,000, allowing Del Mar employees to hand out $400 envelopes to 70 workers this week.

At the San Luis Rey Equine Hospital, husband-wife veterinarians Korin Potenza and Nick Huggons, who worked without sleep for a night and without power for three, continue donating their services and necessary drugs for fire victims. Trainers Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott and Mark Casse shipped a truckload of horse supplies from the East Coast.

A GoFundMe page launched by Santa Anita’s Stronach Group and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club eclipsed $640,000 by Friday afternoon. The first payouts of $500 were given to 224 workers. Trainers received $600 per each horse affected.

Miller, who lost five horses and one of his two barns, suffered an estimated $600,000 in fire-related losses. The San Luis Rey staple received the largest initial GoFundMe payout of $30,000.

The emotional toll, though, is impossible to calculate.

“In today’s society, where you’ve got racist, misogynist, fake-news (claims), sexual harassment and all kinds of nonsense, there are good people out there,” Miller said. “It’s really heartening to see the goodness and kindness.”

Human toll continues

The fire enveloped trainer Joe Herrick in Barn I as he rushed to save Lovely Finish, a filly who finished second in a race at Del Mar last month — her first race. The final, determined push saved the horse, but left Herrick with second- and third-degree burns over 23 percent of his body.

The flames attacked Herrick’s hands, arms, face and the back of his neck.

“I got burned pretty bad getting her out,” Herrick said Friday from the burn unit at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest. “I’m under good care, but I’m still in a lot of pain. Because of the pain, my blood pressure skyrockets. But they’re treating that.”

Even as Herrick detailed the additional week or two he’s expected to be in the unit, he finds solace in the life he protected.

“The smoke was so thick and black,” he said. “A couple seconds more and she wouldn’t have had a chance.”

Bellocq was severely burned while putting herself between horses and flames. The French trainer underwent two surgeries this week and is heavily medicated and on a respirator, according to McBride, a spokesman for the family. He said her condition has been upgraded to serious but stable.

Les Baker, who works as an out-rider, continues to recover after being trampled by fleeing horses. He broke nine ribs and suffered facial lacerations while being run over by at least four horses, according to an interview with television station NBC-7/39.

Mora, O’Neill’s assistant, freed 35 horses as the flames whipped.

He, like so many others, refused to walk away.

“It was better to let them go then to watch them charred in a stall,” Mora said. “People say it’s just a business, blah, blah, blah.”

The longtime horseman shook his head.

“No. No way.”

Community provides comfort

The interest in San Luis Rey Downs reached across the globe.

Miller turned down an invitation the morning after the fire to appear on the “Today” show. He also declined an appearance on Australian radio before agreeing to a BBC interview this week.

The tipping point: Miller wanted to explain how many people came to the aid of those in need.

“There were so many heroes,” he said. “The workers at the track, the people at Trifecta Farms. The volunteers have been amazing. Del Mar’s been amazing. There are so many.

“I’ve shed some tears, for sure.”

Del Mar’s Jerkens, the grandson of Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens, showed little surprise at the actions of those at San Luis Rey.

“The fact they stayed around and put the safety of the horses first, that shows what they’re all about,” he said. “The horses are like their children.”

Habell, the San Luis Rey GM, explained how employees did anything they could. Some grabbed dirt out of end-loaders, trying to smother rogue flames by hand. The facility lost nine of its 15 barns and demolition-related costs alone could top $1 million, he said.

In almost every direction, the reminders of that day remain visible.

“It’s like getting beat up and being on the ground and saying, ‘OK, OK, stop,’” Habell said. “Then when you get up, he hits you again.”

Habell smiled as he walked into the Thoroughbred Room, a place where track workers eat and pass the time during their dusty days. The room had filled from end to end with food and supplies from anonymous donors within 24 hours of the fire.

There are towels and shoes, toaster ovens and toothpaste — even bras next to Spanish-language Bibles. The offerings are piled waist high in spots.

A fire led to a heartwarming flood.

“It’s like the Lone Ranger,” Habell said. “I didn’t even get their name.”



The Union-Tribune will provide periodic updates about the impacts of the fire on San Luis Rey Downs. To suggest possible angles or to share information, contact sports columnist Bryce Miller at … bryce.miller@sduniontribune.com.


Here are accounts dedicated to helping those affected by the Dec. 7 blaze.

For track workers: https://www.gofundme.com/thoroughbredcare

For injured trainer Martine Bellocq: https://www.gofundme.com/rallyformartinebellocq

For injured out-rider Les Baker: https://www.gofundme.com/help-cowboy-get-back-on-his-feet

To direct funds to injured trainer Joe Herrick: https://cthfcares.org/



Read the original article here.

Add Comment