Horses, hearts shaken by devastating San Luis Rey fire

Neighbors raced to grab watering tubs, hoses and trucks. They roared toward pastures surrounding charred San Luis Rey Downs and the scared horses huddled along the fence.

They found one horse after another after another pinned to the boundary, exhausted by fear and fire and evaporating options.

Terri Willis, manager of Udder Feed, flipped through the photos on her phone Friday, explaining the images from a day earlier.

“Because of the ash, it was like it was snowing here,” Willis said. “It’s really sad. They’re confused. Some are burned. They don’t know what to do. We picked up everything we could. We dumped over trash cans, just to get them water.

“They were so thirsty. It was bad.”

Actually, not far away, it was worse.

The Lilac Fire swept over San Luis Rey Downs, a 500-stall facility and essential cog in California’s horse racing industry. The place, rooted in dusty boots, pickup trucks and ball-cap bills bent into half-moons, provides training space and horse housing critical to filling fields at Del Mar and Santa Anita — and as far away as Golden Gate Fields, adjacent to Berkeley.

Madeline Auerbach, a prominent horse owner and member of the California Horse Racing Board, said her group’s been told at least 35 horses died in Thursday’s blaze.

Trainers Martine Bellocq and Joe Herrick are being treated for severe burns at the UC San Diego Medical Center, according to Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers. He said Bellocq is in a medically induced coma. Balch and the CHRB also are trying to learn more about reports of a worker injured by a horse during the chaotic exit.

The most chilling account came from trainer Scott Hansen, who told the Daily Racing Form that half of his 30 horses perished: “It’s apocalyptic. Corpses everywhere.”

Willis, of Udder Feed, said her husband hustled to assist a vet.

“They had to put down two horses,” Willis said through the thump-thump-thump of helicopters overhead, “because they were too badly burned.”

This was crushing tragedy. When trainer Clifford Sise told a TV crew he watched a horse burn in front of his eyes after he failed to coax it from a stall, you shuddered.

On brighter days, muscular thoroughbreds routinely circled the one-mile track in confident shows of grace and power. This is where Kentucky Derby winners Fusaichi Pegasus, Sunday Silence, Gato Del Sol and Ferdinand once polished their stars.

“My God, it’s just devastating,” Auerbach said. “A lot of them lost everything — everything they had.”

Jeff Bloom, an owner who trained to become a jockey at San Luis Rey, waited and waited and waited for word about the three horses he stabled there. He was certain the final one had been lost, until it arrived at Del Mar after 10 p.m. Thursday.

“It’s the extreme of helplessness,” said Bloom, an Oceanside resident who attempted to reach San Luis Rey but was cut off by closed roads. “There’s constant anxiety and frustration and tension. You’re glad to see every horse that came in.

“There are these pockets of joy when you see a horse unload, but at the same time, you have that, ‘Where’s my horse at?’ ”

Jen Paterson, a technician supervisor at San Luis Rey Equine Hospital, waited for hours at the intersection of Highway 76 and Camino del Rey in hopes that authorities would allow in trailers to pick up horses.

“It’s really devastating because everybody’s in trouble and they need help,” said Paterson, who helped care for two horses still in search of owners early Friday. “You can’t do anything.”

As the toll continues to be measured, Bloom reminded that the impact to the multimillion-dollar industry remains unknown.

“It’s a huge blow,” he said. “San Luis Rey has always been a jewel on the crown of racing here in California. It’s provided enormous benefits, from its location, the full gate, the arenas, the training pool, all of it.

“When you’re talking 500 to 600 horses, that’s a significant portion of the inventory in the state. It’s a critical piece to the racing puzzle in Southern California. It’s impossible to know how much damage has been done.”

Profound sadness shared the stage with a limitless well of kindness.

Volunteers flooded the racetrack at Del Mar, which opened its gates as to animals of all shapes and sizes. As of mid-afternoon Friday, a GoFundMe campaign had raised more than $325,000.

“The community has been amazing,” Auerbach said. “We’re hearing from people all over the country. And I can’t say enough about the grooms and riders. They’re the true heroes. They sacrificed their safety and well-being to get the horses out.”

The heroes. The hurt.

As the wisps of smoke danced away Friday, it felt like too much to sort.

Training at Del Mar

With San Luis Rey Downs obviously unavailable, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club announced late Friday that with the assistance of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which owns the Del Mar Fairgrounds, the racetrack will serve as a training center starting Saturday morning.

“The Del Mar Fairgrounds is a multi-use facility and we do have constraints on just how far we can go with this, but for the next several weeks, or months, Del Mar will be holding training for our Southern California horsemen.” said Joe Harper, the Thoroughbred Club’s president and CEO.

bryce.miller@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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