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Hovdey: San Luis Rey making its rise from the ashes

Saturday, March 3rd, 2018

Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. The rest have 31 … including March.

“Thank goodness,” said Kevin Habell, who is counting the hours.

Habell, the general manager, is the point man for the Stronach Group at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, where work is feverishly underway to erase the physical evidence of the wildfire of Dec. 7, 2017, that took the lives of 46 horses. The fire destroyed nearly half of the 495 stalls on the North San Diego County property, scattering the surviving horses and their handlers and traumatizing the racing community like no event in the history of the California sport.

Spurred on by high winds and sparked in part by the ignited fronds from the property’s towering Washingtonia palms, the fire took seven barns and part of an eighth, including those of such well-known trainers as Peter Miller, Phil D’Amato, and Clifford Sise. Most of the horses rescued from the burning barns, along with those evacuated from barns untouched by fire, have been stabled at Del Mar since the disaster. But now the clock is ticking, and an April 1 deadline has been set for the reopening of San Luis Rey.

A tour of the property this week revealed a construction site of intense activity. The expanse of land at the lower end of the property, where six barns were gutted, had been cleared of all fire debris. Graders were hard at work preparing the ground for the two massive ClearSpan structures that will be able to house close to 250 horses.

The ClearSpan product, manufactured in Ohio, has been the Stronach Group’s stabling structure of choice at both its Gulfstream Park and Laurel Park properties. They appear to be more related to big-top circus tents rather than traditional racetrack barns, with rigid, heavy-duty canvas stretched over an anchored web of steel supports.

“Ours will be more like the Laurel structures, with more of a peak,” Habell said. “They’ll be white, and we’re told they are self-cleaning. The framing material is already here, and now we’re just waiting for trucks to be available to deliver the canvas.”

Inside the ClearSpans, rows of modular stalls, tack rooms, and storage units can be configured to answer stabling demand.

“We’re not going to put sides on them because we don’t need them here with our weather,” Habell said as he drove a visitor around the project. “Each barn will have two sets of back-to-back stalls, 85 feet wide, with one barn 452 feet long and the other 352 feet long, with 20 feet between the barns. One barn will have 144 stalls, the other 100-plus.”

Because of a more efficient use of the area, Habell envisions room at the south end of the ClearSpans for use as walking rings, hotwalkers, and even a “village” of living quarters for stablehands.

The ClearSpan structures will run north and south, perpendicular to the surviving barn on the lower end, where half of the Peter Miller horses were stabled. That 40-stall barn, which was rebuilt last year after severe storm damage in early 2016, needed 19 stalls rebuilt or repaired from fire damage.

“I’ve enjoyed training at Del Mar, mostly because the track has been great,” said Miller, who is leading the current Santa Anita trainer standings. “But we’ll be ready to get back to San Luis Rey.”

The stalls of the ClearSpans will bring the training center up to its authorized capacity of just under 500 stalls, as specified by local zoning. As a result, the cleared stretch of land where the 95-stall Barn G once stood – and where trainer Martine Bellocq suffered her life-threatening burns rescuing her horses – will remain undeveloped for now.

“It will be a work in progress,” Habell said. “Maybe some sand pens, walking rings – we’ll wait until we’re back up and running again before we decide.”

Elsewhere on the property, the barns spared from fire damage have undergone a vigorous early spring cleaning. The stalls were pressure washed, exteriors painted, and new roofing of coated galvanized metal will be added to all the traditional structures.

And then there are the palm trees. More than 200 of the offending palms were removed, including every tree lining the road between the destroyed barns on the lower level and Barn G just above. Habell also had the palms removed from proximity to barns on the rest of the property as well as those lining the entrance road leading from the local highway.

“I left those two king palms just outside our office,” Habell said, pointing to a pair of smaller trees just outside the stable office door. “But the two matching trees on the other side were ripped up and tossed away by the wind, it was that strong.”

Despite the wholesale renovation, there always will be reminders of last Dec. 7, and Habell conceded that no one will ever recover completely from the trauma. Up front, at the main gate, security chief Nacho Tapia was flanked by the wire-framed Christmas tree adorned with lights and a star that served as a symbolic sentry in the holiday weeks following the fire and evacuation.

“It will be good to have everyone back here,” Tapia said. “On that day I plan on lighting the tree.”

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