Burned trainer Herrick, horse travel fire-recovery road together

About 35 years ago, Joe Herrick plucked a purple and gasping girl from the Laguna Beach surf. In 2006, the horse-racing trainer revived the lifeless father of a colleague by delivering CPR in an equipment room at Del Mar racetrack.

A couple of years back, Herrick rescued two people who flipped a kayak in 5-foot waves on Lake Tahoe — fighting hypothermia out of Coast Guard reach.

So of course Herrick strained with all his might, among choking smoke and flickering flames, to coax the filly Lovely Finish from her stall during the deadly Dec. 7 fire at San Luis Rey Downs.

Why, though, did the man who suffered burns on 23 percent of his body — feeling skin melt as the fireball pounced — decide to drive two backstretch workers to Home Depot just one day after he left the hospital?

Why did Herrick, who lost about $125,000 in horses and equipment with thousands more in medical bills lurking, dig a scarred hand into his own pocket to buy a pair of space heaters so others could fight off the chill at Del Mar?

Some people, we discover through happenstance and horrible circumstance, are uncommon.

“I could choose to stay in bed in a fetal position, but I’m not going to let this defeat me,” Herrick said Wednesday at his small barn outside Escondido. “You’ve got to roll with the punches in life.”

Sometimes, life offers jabs. Herrick faced life-altering haymakers amid the blackened hay.

The fire claimed six of his seven race horses, leaving just Lovely Finish and her owner to fight for life — and each other. Herrick refused to leave her. When the heat seemed to block escape, she refused to leave him.

“This fireball just came over the wall and hit us as we were going out of the stall and lit us up,” he said. “… When that hit us, she launched us out of the stall. I was just hanging onto her.

“I know if it’s 5 seconds longer, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Once Herrick ensured the safety of Lovely Finish, named after a popular English soccer call by the fan of Manchester United, the badly injured trainer stubbornly relented to firefighter pleas and climbed into an ambulance.

They pumped in morphine to dull the pain, rushing Herrick to the burn unit at the UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest. That’s where he spent 12 days with the threat of two months more if skin grafts became necessary.

Lovely Finish, raw from burns on the left side of her face and neck with an eye still as beet-red as a Las Vegas hangover, landed at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe.

They would find each other again. There wasn’t a choice, really. They’d been through so much already.

“I cried every day until Jan. 6,” Herrick said. “I had horrible nightmares. I’d sweat out the bed every night. You don’t want to go to sleep, because you know the nightmares are waiting.

“I finally read a quote on Facebook that said, ‘Don’t look back. You’re not heading that way.’ ”

Herrick and his 3-year-old filly are unsure where they’re headed, exactly.

The sole certainty: They’re headed there together.

‘It was just raining fire’

Herrick grew up around horses in La Habra Heights, east of Los Angeles. The 55-year-old chuckled at memories of Jimmy, the Shetland pony he learned to ride who mastered so many tricks that he appeared in episodes of “Lassie” and “Bonanza.”

In 1995, the connection with animals led Herrick to become a certified trainer. He never lost a horse to racing or training in those 22 years … until last month. In a matter of minutes, six vanished into the inky air.

As smoke curled over the hillside that neighbors San Luis Rey Downs, Herrick and other workers soaked everything in the 10 stalls at Barn I with water. Around 2 p.m., his world caught fire.

“When the thing hit, it hit with so much heat,” Herrick said. “Then the palm trees exploded and rained down into the barn. It’s all dirt around my barn. There’s nothing to burn, except the palm trees.

“All hell broke loose. It was just raining fire.”

Herrick rushed into the stall to remove Lovely Finish, who finished a hard-charging second in her only race Nov. 5 at Del Mar. She showed toughness and the instinct to fight in that 6-furlong race.

The horse drew the dreaded No. 1 post position and claustrophobic confines of the inside rail, tumbling to the back of the pack — a demoralizing 15 lengths back.

In the stretch run, Lovely Finish found a kick that allowed her to roar by all in the field but winner Carpathia.

That day on the track, there was no quit in the 17-1 long shot. That day a month later amid the flames, a pair of sudden long shots fought to the finish line, too.

Herrick’s ex-wife Julie, who lives just one property away and opens her horse arena to Joe, said the man she knows isn’t the type to cave.

“It’s just his character,” she said. “He doesn’t let anything take him down.”

In those critical early hours in the burn unit, with his swollen head swallowed by gauze and his arms glowing red and throbbing, Herrick admitted, the medical and mental weight of it all nearly toppled him.

“I think at first, you’re just in survival mode,” he said. “It’s pretty horrific. You’re in a ton of pain, but you’re also just heartbroken.”

The slow march back tested, as well.

“I can barely make a fist,” said Herrick, showing the strain Wednesday as he opened and closed his right hand still streaked crimson. “It’s painful from the scar tissue being stretched that tight.”

Focusing on Lovely Finish helps Herrick redirect the focus from himself.

Three times each day, he cleans her stall. Twice a day, he walks her around the nearby arena. He picks times to venture outside when the sun isn’t bearing down, because her skin remains too sensitive to the light. He slathers himself in sunscreen because the same is true for him.

Herrick quietly talks to the filly as he gently washes her wounds with warm water and baby oil. Later in the day, he applies a concoction of Vitamin E and aloe. He also wraps her in a therapy blanket that promotes circulation and healing, itself burned in a few dime-sized spots after flames fell into the back of the trailer Dec. 7.

The two immediately bonded when she was a yearling, Herrick said.

The fire created some profound and permanent.

“I think we both appreciate each other even more,” Herrick said. “I guess we pretty much saved each other’s lives, you know?”

Broken, burned – and blessed

Joe Herrick had lost his faith, spiritually and otherwise. It was about two years ago. He and Julie were going through the divorce. Then he lost his father and roommate, William, around Christmastime.

The two lived together as Joe sorted through his life. He admired his father for miles, marveling at his capacity to help. The man who grew up on a South Dakota farm during the Depression put his muscle behind projects ranging from the San Pasqual Academy for foster kids to building a Red Cross Clinic in Rosarito, Mexico.

The loss staggered Joe.

“I got into a funk,” he said.

Herrick stopped going to church, returning only after the fire reshaped parts of his body and outlook. The candlelight service on Christmas Eve stirred thoughts that initially confused, then soothed.

“I was heartbroken, sick, burned,” he said. “But I also felt blessed.”

The perspective feels jolting from someone in the position of Herrick, who still faces challenging therapy sessions. He also needs to cover a $7,000 medical deductible that, because of the unfortunate timing of the calendar, started anew when 2018 arrived.

Every time he glances down at his arms or sees the slight discoloration along the left side of his neck in the mirror, the memories will bubble up.

“It just is what it is … I can’t change anything,” Herrick said. “It’s not like I’m a male model or anything. I don’t really care too much about looks. I’m not that vain. I just kind accept it and go on.”

As he tossed a loving grin toward Lovely Finish, he’s reminded he’s not alone.

==

THE RECOVERY

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

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

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°