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Hovdey: One year later, wounds knit and a tree grows

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

Jay Hovdey
A single palm tree stands sentinel by two new canvas-topped structures at San Luis Rey Downs.

Monster Man was a 3-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song with two wins from 10 starts after mixing it up with some of the best young grass horses in the West for trainer Scott Hansen and owner Gary Broad. As December of 2017 dawned, he was being prepared at San Luis Rey Downs for what promised to be a profitable 4-year-old campaign.

California Diamond was a 4-year-old gelding who had run out nearly half a million in earnings from his San Luis Rey Downs stall. The son of Harbor the Gold finished fourth in the Cary Grant Stakes at Del Mar on Nov. 19, 2017, and trainer Peter Miller was looking ahead to a stakes race for Cal-breds at Los Alamitos in December.

Riri was a 5-year-old mare by Speightstown who came within a length of winning the Mizdirection Stakes at Santa Anita in April of 2017. She was at Los Alamitos with the Phil D’Amato stable before being transferred to the trainer’s string at San Luis Rey Downs for some time in the peace and quiet of the training center as the year drew to a close.

Ral Rue, a 5-year-old gelded son of Any Given Saturday, was still a maiden after 14 starts through the summer of 2017, but had finished second in three of his previous four starts, so things were looking up. Joe Herrick, his ever-patient owner and trainer who called San Luis Rey home, was not about to throw in the towel.

By the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2017, they were all dead, along with 40 of their fellow Thoroughbreds and two stable ponies caught up in the flames of the Lilac Fire. A spark from a vehicle on nearby Interstate 15 was the apparent cause, sending flames through low hills and dry brush to eventually threaten the south rim of the training center. Then, in an instant, fierce, capricious winds pushed the flames abruptly to the north, igniting the fronds of towering palms and exploding through the nearest shed rows.

Of the 157 structures destroyed in the 4,100-acre blaze surrounding the north San Diego County communities of Fallbrook and Bonsall, seven were barns at San Luis Rey, with severe damage to an eighth. Stablehands released their frightened horses, hoping they would gather on the one-mile training track at a distance from the fire while waiting for evacuation trailers to make their way through a tangle of emergency vehicles.

By midnight, some 200 of the 475 horses who lived at the training center had found refuge at Del Mar, 30 miles to the south. The others were scattered at farms closer to San Luis Rey Downs, asylum seekers mercifully welcomed by strangers. And then there were the 46 left behind.

Candy Twist (by Twirling Candy), Baby Bruin (by Eskendreya), Malibu Vixen (by Malibu Moon), Amalfi Drive (by Flatter), and Oddsmaker (by Morning Line) were among a dozen 2-year-olds who died in fire before they ever faced the heat of a horse race.

Cat Dreamer, an 11-year-old former racehorse turned pony, was one of 15 horses killed in the ravaged barn of Scott Hansen. Cliff Sise lost five, including three babies about to turn 2 – by Quality Road, City Zip, and Into Mischief – all of them gone before they even had names.

In his efforts to save his horses, Sise singed his hair and ears. Joe Herrick suffered third degree burns on his chest and arms. Martine Bellocq, who tried unsuccessfully to pull her colt Wild Bill Hickory out of a flaming stall, was burned so badly she had to be placed in a coma to stabilize her metabolism while surgeons fought to keep her alive. Miraculously, she survived.

“I know it was only a year ago, but with all we’ve gone through and had to do it seems like a whole lot longer,” said Kevin Habell, who manages the training center for The Stronach Group.

Two large canvas-topped structures now stand where the burned barns were cleared, housing some 248 horses for upward of 20 different trainers. A couple dozen portable tack rooms are arranged nearby in a colony of living quarters on ground where Wild Bill Hickory died. Metal containers now serve as fire-proof storage units for the hay and bedding that erupted into flames and accelerated the fire.

The tall Washingtonia palms that dropped their deadly fronds onto barns were removed, but one small king palm remains at the back of the property, near the point at which the fire jumped the fence. A plot of grass grows around the modest tree, offering a place of meditation for those so inclined.

“We couldn’t believe it survived,” Habell said. “We kind of look at it as a symbol for the rest of us refusing to give up.”

For the past month, the new structures have undergone retrofitting for fire sprinklers to comply with building codes that were temporarily waived so that horses could return to San Luis Rey Downs beginning last April. The horses occupying those 248 stalls were relocated with their people once again to Del Mar in early November, and they will remain there until around Dec. 14, according to Habell.

For that reason, there will be no official commemoration of the one-year anniversary on Friday. Habell said that “once the family is back together again” a proper event would be arranged.

In the meantime, trainer Michelle Dollase is marking Dec. 7 by hosting a luncheon at a local restaurant. Her barn was spared any fire damage, but she and her crew had a front-row view of the horrific scene unfolding as they evacuated their horses to safety.

“Some of my people had nightmares and sleeping problems after the experience,” Dollase said. “That’s to be expected. But at the same time I think it brought everyone who works here closer together. And we’ve all become ‘experts’ on fires.

“Still, someone asked me if we’re ready if it happens again,” Dollase added. “I mean, the way that fire behaved, how could you be? It was like a loose horse. You didn’t know which way it would turn.”

The Lilac Fire did not compare to the monstrous fires named Camp and Woolsey that raged in California last month. There were no human fatalities, and within five days the fire was 95 percent contained. Still, the deaths of so many horses from a betrayal of nature tested the people of San Luis Rey Downs to limits they’d never known.

“The reminders are always with us,” said Peter Miller, whose large stable is among those currently displaced. “Look at us, back at Del Mar like we were a year ago. Talk about a flashback.

“And when we’re back at San Luis Rey, I’ll still have to walk by California Diamond’s stall every day,” Miller added. “When you know their personalities, when you pet them every day, run your hand down their legs, all that makes it very difficult.”

Los Borrachos was a 7-year-old son of Pulpit who had won six of his 36 starts and hit the board another dozen times for a variety of trainers, including Bill Mott. On Nov. 30, 2017, he was claimed for the second time by Miller and moved from his former stall at Los Alamitos to the Miller stable at San Luis Rey Downs. Seven days later he was dead, a victim of the fire.

“He was just a really cool horse, a real hard-knocking guy,” Miller said. “He won for us before, so it was a no-brainer to try and take him back. But I had to win a shake to get him.”

In 1927, Thornton Wilder published a story about how five strangers came to be on a bridge spanning a deep chasm in South America. The bridge collapsed, sending them all to their deaths. There was no apparent rhyme or reason as to why those five should have converged at that place in that moment, and no explanation was offered.

“Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan,” concluded Wilder’s narrator.

Miller had to win a shake to get him.

The name of the book is “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”

“I don’t think I want to read that,” Miller said. “Not ever.”

This is dedicated to the 46.


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

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