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For fast-acting Miller stable, fire could have been far more tragic

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

Last Thursday afternoon started as a normal late-autumn weekday for Jehobany Catalan Alvarez, the foreman at trainer Peter Miller’s stable at San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall, Calif. Catalan was overseeing the 77-horse stable, which had already trained for the day and was in a quiet period after lunch.

The next 12 hours may have been the most chaotic in his lifetime, and those of his stable colleagues.

Shortly after noon, a strong wind brought smoke to the northern San Diego County training center. Minutes later, flames were visible outside the property.

A fast-moving wildfire arrived at the 495-stall training center with little notice, forcing Catalan and his team to take drastic action.

“We could smell it before” it got to San Luis Rey Downs, he said in a phone interview Sunday.

“It was windy, 40 to 50 miles. It came really, really fast. We didn’t have time for it. We did the best we could.”

In the next few hours, Catalan and a group of grooms and hotwalkers took drastic action and were able to save all but five horses in the massive stable.

Catalan, working with stable staff members Walberto Villalobos, Manuel Vasquez, Melvin Quintero, Edgar Donis, Oscar Romero, Leo Tapia and Juan Castro, hurriedly ran through the shedrow, coaxing horses out of their stall and onto the property.

A cellphone video of the commotion shot by Tapia showed a chaotic scene of the staff scrambling to clear horses from stalls amid ever-increasing smoke and flames that had moved within yards of the stable.

“Jehobany and my team were heroic in the efforts to save our horses,” Miller said in a text message Sunday. “I will forever be grateful for their efforts. Without the heroism they displayed, the results would have been far more devastating than they were.”

The stable lost five horses, including the multiple stakes winner California Diamond.

The fire took a devastating toll. Eight barns were lost. The California Horse Racing Board announced Saturday that 46 horses perished.

When the danger from the fire subsided, Catalan and the team began gathering the stable’s horses from the property.

By late afternoon, horse vans were given access to San Luis Rey Downs and began sending horses to Del Mar racetrack, about 35 miles to the southwest. Some were sent to farms near San Luis Rey. Some horses got off the property and were later found in backyards.

One by one, Catalan sought out the Miller stable runners.

“We started to recognize the horses and put them on trailers,” Catalan said.

Conditions were poor. “It was a little hard to breathe,” Catalan said.

The job lasted until 10 p.m., more than nine hours after the fire started. It was late at night, but Catalan said sleep was impossible. He was wide awake at 2 a.m.

“It was too hard to sleep,” he said. “I couldn’t.”

The next day, Miller, Catalan, and the team began to reassemble the stable at Del Mar, where they will be based this winter. It took days to find the whereabouts of all the survivors.

“We found everybody,” he said Sunday. “We found the last one yesterday. Thank God, we’re okay now.”

Miller typically has one of the more active stables at Southern California racetracks. This Thursday and Friday, Miller does not have any starters at Los Alamitos. It may be the start of the quiet period for the stable until the horses have recovered from the evacuation and possible smoke inhalation.

Catalan, 30, has worked for Miller for three years, having previously worked for Bob Baffert.

A native of Guatemala, Catalan said Sunday that working to get the barn settled at Del Mar has been beneficial in that it has helped him forget the horrid memories of last Thursday.

“We’re trying to get back to normal,” he said. “We are still working. It will take a little time.”

◗ To help those impacted by the fire, contribute through the official GoFundMe page for the San Luis Rey Downs fire relief effort at

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Photo Credits:   Vassar Photography (Northern CA)  |  Benoit Photo (Southern CA)  |  Michael J. Marten (Southern CA)

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