12/11/2017 3:06PM

Hovdey: Brave tales from the fog of inferno


These guys were in the fire.

Guys like Cliff Sise, who stood outside his makeshift Del Mar shed row, puffing on a cigarette.

“I know,” he said, deflecting the irony. “But it calms me down.”

Go for it, Cliff. No problem here. Besides, the dull glow from the tip of a Marlboro Light’s got nothing on the inferno from which Sise escaped last Thursday afternoon. His barn was fifth in the line of fiery dominoes that fell along the lower road of the property, each one consumed with impossible speed as trainers and brave stablehands flailed in the dim and choking smoke to save what horses they could.

Sise sported some nasty burn spots on his nose and ears, and his hair was singed where his cap didn’t cover. He dismissed such incidentals as cosmetic. It is what he’ll carry on the inside that will take some healing.

“It’s so hot, you feel like your whole body is almost on fire,” Sise said. “You can’t see, it’s so dark, and you don’t know where to go. You think you’ve got to get to a clearing, so you do. That’ll last about five minutes, and you’re okay. Then you go back in. I did it twice. You don’t really think about it. You’re just trying to save the horses. We’d go in for our kids.”

At one point Sise found himself leading one of his horses when a stampede of animals erupted from a nearby barn.

“I just let him go,” Sise said. “Even if you were holding on to one, with all the other horses running around you were better off letting it go or else you’d get trampled.”

Time is distorted in the midst of chaos. It seemed like an eternity before Cal Fire authorities allowed horse van and trailers access to the property, and by then it was almost dark.

“I went back to my barn later, after the horses were loaded, looking around with the light from my phone,” Sise said. “I thought I lost four. One was in the shed row. Two were in their stalls. There was one dead outside my wash rack – though I think it was somebody else’s. Two barns down, there was a horse fried, but he was three-quarters of the way into a tack room, just trying to get somewhere.

“But horses, they don’t fight. When they get hit by that fire they just quit, and they’re dead in a minute, sometimes less. I tried to get a filly out of a pen, but she wouldn’t go. So pathetic. Oscar burned his hands trying.”

That would be Oscar Torres, Sise’s foreman.

“My guys were lifesavers,” Sise said. “Oscar, a groom, Edwin Gonzalez, and Freddie Gonzalez, my exercise boy. The four of us.”

Just then, from the first stall of Sise’s impromptu Del Mar shed row, came the full-throated holler of a Thoroughbred stallion.

“Prospect Park,” said Sise, referring to the big, dark bay stakes winner who in early 2015 was on the short list of California’s Kentucky Derby candidates. Injuries have plagued Prospect Park, and he was about to embark on another comeback when he was turned loose as the fire raged.

“Who knows, there may be a couple of little Prospect Parks running around sometime soon,” Sise said, hinting that danger was an aphrodisiac even in the equine world.

“The good thing is, most mares aren’t cycling this time of year. But he did come back with a few kick marks on his chest.”

Leandro Mora awoke last Thursday morning in paradise. He had been ordered by his boss, Doug O’Neill, to take a few days of R&R in the guest house at Paul Reddam’s recently acquired Ocean Ranch in Bonsall, the former Vessels Stallion Farm, just over the hill from San Luis Rey Downs.

“I was bored,” Mora said, realizing how silly that sounded. “There was nothing to do.”

Be careful what you wish for. Mora was on the porch, sipping his morning coffee, when a ranch hand reported a brush fire at the extreme eastern end of the vast property. Mindful of the 35 O’Neill horses stabled at San Luis Rey, he hopped in his ride and headed for the training center, where morning chores were drawing to an end.

“When I got to the barn I told everybody to make sure all the horses had their halters on,” Mora said. “Then when it got bad, and the smoke was so thick, we started to let them go toward the track. I was leading one horse, and a cop or sheriff comes up to me and acted like I was stealing my own horse.”

The O’Neill horses were lucky. They live in two of the old adobe barns that date to the building of San Luis Rey Downs in the late 1960s, and the flames did not approach them except from above, when the fronds of palm trees burst into flames and fell like torches.

“That was the real danger for us,” Mora said. “We had to get out of there.”

Joe Herrick was speaking on his cell phone from the burn ward of the UCSD Medical Center-Hillcrest in San Diego. It was Sunday afternoon, and Herrick was four days into excruciating treatment for severe injuries sustained in his repeated attempts to pull horses out of his San Luis Rey barn – the first barn at the edge of the property on the lower level of the center.

“They told me today they’ll have to do some skin grafts on my hands, maybe my arms,” Herrick said. “I can’t take all these pain meds, though, so I’m trying mostly Tylenol. Except when a woman comes in and scrubs my skin with an abrasive towel, which is not pleasant. I’m beginning to hate her.”

Just to be clear, a third degree burn destroys the skin to its full depth, and only before the dead skin is removed can a graft of healthy skin be applied.

“When I pulled my trailer up to the barn the next thing I knew the shavings inside the trailer were on fire,” Herrick said. “By the time we got that fire put out, the flames were on us. My barn is on the end, meaning there’s nothing between us and all that debris and brush on the other side of the fence line.

“The shed row was black. You couldn’t see much. You think you have minutes, but you only have seconds.

“I had one horse that I turned out head right back into his stall,” Herrick said. “Sometimes they don’t do the smartest thing. The stallions will try to kill the geldings and breed the mares. I saw one horse run by me with a broken leg. I saw another horse walk up to a Mercedes, flop on the hood and die. The worst images in your mind you could ever have.”

One of the horses Herrick was able to successfully cut loose from his small string was Lovely Finish, a promising maiden who later that night was at the Del Mar evacuation center being treated for burns not as serious as those suffered by her trainer. Lovely Finish was later transferred to the Helen Woodward animal clinic in Rancho Santa Fe.

“At least we’re both still alive,” Herrick said.