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Hovdey: Bellocqs start to heal four months after fire

Saturday, April 14th, 2018

Housed in one of those barns, Martine Bellocq and her husband, Pierre, struggled that day along with others to herd their horses to safety. Martine, attempting to coax a frightened colt from his stall, sustained life-threatening burns to what doctors estimate was 60 percent of her body, along with the attendant damage to internal organs traumatized by unbearable temperatures and deadly smoke inhalation.

Somehow, she survived, and now Pierre Bellocq was sitting in the Del Mar racing office, having trained their remaining three horses that morning, recounting the ordeal of the past four months before heading to the burn unit at the UC San Diego Medical Center to spend another in a series of seemingly endless afternoons at the bedside of his wife.

“Most of the skin grafts have finished and are succeeding,” Bellocq said. “She is breathing on her own now, although she’s still being fed on an IV, and she can’t talk because of the tracheoscopy. They also had her eyelids sewn shut, but now they’re open, so she can see.

“And she can write,” he added, “but only with her left hand. Being French, those from our generation were taught to be right-handed. She was originally left-handed, though, so she is reverting to it, and she’s doing a good job.”

Pierre has been staying several nights each week at the Bannister Family House near the hospital, a facility provided to those with relatives in long-term care.

“As she is improving, she also is having complications,” Bellocq said. “The worst is the amputation of her foot. With all the vascular disruption, there was not enough blood circulation to that extremity. We’re also a little bit concerned about the kidney function. She is on dialysis every day.”

The Bellocqs have shared much beyond the current tragedy, including children, grandchildren, and a classic racetrack love story complete with international flair.

Pierre, born in the Parisian suburb of Maisons-Laffitte, comes from a family steeped in racing. His father, Pierre Sr., is the legendary Daily Racing Form cartoonist whose murals adorn the walls of many American racetracks with his signature “Peb” attached. Pierre’s younger brother, Remi, is executive director of the North American Racing Academy and an accomplished racing cartoonist in his own right.

All of the Bellocqs were adept on horseback, but it was Pierre Jr. who made a career at the track with a series of top-drawer horsemen. He and Martine came West with the stable of Patrick Biancone before going on their own.

“My first assistant trainer’s job was with Buddy Hirsch,” Bellocq said. “I met Martine in Aiken, where we wintered. She was from Provence and was working for T.J. Kelly. We met at a Christmas party, and we were married about a year later.”

The date was Feb. 21, 1975, which means their 43rd anniversary came and went in the burn ward, as did Martine’s 64th birthday in January. Pierre allows himself to be cautiously hopeful that Martine will have a 65th with some quality of life, but her doctors are making no promises.

“In the last two or three days, her mind has really come back,” he said. “Writing and gesturing, she has described to me what she did while I was trying to save the other horses. We had a 2-year-old colt, Wild Bill Hickory, who was absolutely gorgeous. He was our big hope.

“She explained to me that she hosed herself down to go into the stall on fire, trying to get the horse out, but he would not leave the stall. It went up like a bonfire – three minutes, it was all over with.

“When I came back from turning another horse loose, she was slouched on the ground, repeating the name of the horse,” Bellocq said. “I got her in a golf cart and took her to the medics from the fire department, who tried to get an IV into her to give her something for the pain. They took her to Palomar Hospital, where they put her on a helicopter for San Diego and the burn ward. She remembered it all.”

The idea that a person would put her own life in jeopardy to save a horse is the stuff of serious introspection, although few are ever tested to such an extreme. Martine Bellocq was, and she answered the question with unequivocal valor.

“Until she started speaking with her left hand, only about three weeks ago, I was a little bit anxious as to what her state of mind would be, given the amputation, seeing her horse burned to death,” Pierre said. “I was expecting the worst, but it’s been totally the opposite. I’m just so amazed that there’s not a trace of self-pity.”

And when Martine was at last able to communicate, willing her burned and skin-grafted left hand to finally share the feelings imprisoned for more than 90 days, what was her first scribbled word? Pierre thought for a moment, then replied:


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

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