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Horses killed, barns destroyed as fire sweeps through San Luis Rey Downs

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

Several barns were destroyed and an unknown number of horses died after a fast-moving fire moved through the San Luis Rey Downs training center in San Diego County on Thursday afternoon, according to horsemen on the property.

Trainer Scott Hansen said late Thursday afternoon that he feared his 30-horse stable lost as many as 10 horses.

Hansen was at Los Alamitos for races on Thursday and was in contact with a member of his stable staff who said a majority of their horses were released from their stalls and set loose on the property to get away from the burning barn.

“I don’t know the extent of the damage,” he said. “I know I lost horses. I had 30 horses. My guy estimates at least eight to 10 didn’t make it. That’s a guess.

“They were dropping the webbings to get them out of there. The palm trees caught fire above the barn. All hell broke loose real quick.”

Hansen said many of his horses could not be accounted for. Late Thursday afternoon, equine vans were granted access to the property. Loose horses were being gathered as rapidly as possible to be shipped to Del Mar.

David Jerkens, racing secretary at Del Mar, said that as of 5 p.m. approximately 35 horses were on the grounds from San Luis Rey Downs, with horse vans of all sizes arriving frequently.

“We’ll worry about identifying them” later, he said. “The main thing is to get them on a van and to Del Mar.”

Austin Nakatani, whose mother Michele Dollase trains a stable at San Luis Rey Downs, and trainer Sam Scolamieri said several barns were lost on a property that houses more than 400 horses.

“It’s taken 75 percent of San Luis Rey Downs,” Nakatani said. “There have been casualties. It’s not good.”

In a text message, Scolamieri said that the barns on the lower side of the property “appear to be gone.”

It was not immediately clear how many horses perished.

As the fire approached, scores of horses were let out of their stalls to run loose on the property, primarily on the infield of the training track, to get them out of the barns.

Keith Brackpool, chairman of Santa Anita which owns San Luis Rey Downs, said stable personnel had no choice but to let horses loose to get them away from the barns.

“This thing came out of nowhere,” Brackpool said of the fire. “They had to move the horses out of the stalls.”

Nakatani said four fire trucks were on the property in an effort to salvage other buildings, such as barns and dormitories.

The fire led to the evacuation of some horses from San Luis Rey Downs to the Del Mar Horse Park and Del Mar racetrack early in the afternoon before sheriff department banned transportation in and out of the area because of the fast-moving flames.

Television pictures showed a herd of about 50 horses running freely on the track’s infield, Jerkens said. Later in the afternoon, Jerkens said television pictures showed some vans leaving the property and stable staff trying to reach the horses on the infield.

Steve Rothblum, who works closely with trainer Doug O’Neill, said their stable got “six to 15” horses off the property before sheriff’s officials put a halt to traffic because of the flames.

“We had vans ready but they wouldn’t let them in,” Rothblum said. “We turned a lot loose on the infield of the training track in hope.”

Rothblum and O’Neill were traveling to San Luis Rey Downs from the Los Angeles area in late afternoon.

Rothblum was in touch with assistant trainer Leandro Mora, who was on the San Luis Rey Downs property and said the fire moved into the area at a terrifying pace.

“He said it was like an end-of-the-world scene,” Rothblum said.

Santa Anita officials sent vans to San Luis Rey Downs to aid in the evacuation, but there was concern the vans would not be able to reach the facility, according to Jim Cassidy, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association.

The fire started east of San Luis Rey Downs and quickly spread to the west, according to media reports. There were sustained winds of more than 20 mph in Southern California on Thursday, which made controlling fires very difficult for fire officials. There have been massive fires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties in the last 48 hours that have burned more than 120,000 acres and are not under control.

The fire started early Thursday afternoon near the junction of Interstate 15 and California Highway 76, about four miles northeast of the training center, and was said to be moving quickly because of the winds, according to media reports.

In a twitter post, the San Diego Public Affairs Bureau said Cal Fire was working with local military operations to secure helicopters to aid in fighting the fire.

An area immediately north of the training center was ordered evacuated before 2 p.m. Pacific. At 2:30 p.m., Highway 76 was closed in both directions. The highway is within a few hundred yards of the training center.

Del Mar has housed horses in the past when fire conditions existed in the region, including in the fall of 2007 when similar conditions prompted a variety of farms in the area to evacuate horses to the facility.

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