12/08/2017 2:40PM

Hovdey: At Del Mar, community gathers to provide refuge

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What this reporter witnessed Thursday was the end destination of the mass fire evacuation of the horses and people from San Luis Rey Downs Training Center in north San Diego County. The horses were transported by an impromptu caravan of horse trailers, from commercial big rigs to backyard two-stalls, to the empty stables of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which opened its doors and mustered a remarkably efficient operation of volunteers and professional handlers.

It was difficult to contemplate, even in the midst of an emergency. I know just about every inch of San Luis Rey, from the old days 40 years ago when Charlie Whittingham stabled a powerful second string there, through its fallow years as an underused stepchild of the L.A. tracks, to its more recent renaissance under the ownership of The Stronach Group as a vital part of the Southern California stabling capacity. Its setting was idyllic. The air pristine, feathered by afternoon ocean breezes making their way 30 miles inland. Horses and people loved working there.

Now this. Eight barns destroyed, more than 400 horses displaced, and the industry beset by the greatest natural disaster to hit the Southern California racing family since a 1991 earthquake shook a steel beam loose from the Santa Anita grandstand, killing 34-year-old Julie Nickoley and badly injuring her fiancé, trainer Art Lerille.

The road restrictions imposed by authorities as the helter-skelter Lilac Fire moved swiftly toward the small inland towns of Bonsall and Fallbrook prevented horse vans from getting to San Luis Rey as quickly as hoped. The fire was becoming significant by noon Thursday, but by 4 p.m. there were only about a dozen San Luis Rey evacuees bedded down at Del Mar.

“I live close by San Luis Rey, and I could see what was starting to happen,” said Darrin Albert. “I got in there as fast as I could.”

Albert loaded three horses from the San Luis Rey barn of trainer Ed Freeman into his trailer – including Albert’s filly Wicked Old Fashion – along with groom Carlos Osuna and made a beeline for Del Mar.

“Thank god for Carlos,” Albert said. “He just took over, and we got it done.”

Del Mar was welcoming all breeds. Show horses and backyard pleasure horses were stabled in the barns most recently occupied by the Breeders’ Cup horses of Chad Brown, Wesley Ward, Dale Romans, and Bob Baffert. The Thoroughbreds were sent to the west end of the stables, where volunteers were busy preparing empty stalls for evacuees.

Former trainer and Del Mar Thoroughbred Club employee Jenine Sahadi arrived with her SUV packed with water buckets. Veteran racetracker Linda Baze and several other volunteers began to identify horses, while the DMTC’s Charlie Perez, who earned his stripes working for Charlie Whittingham years ago, ramrodded the activity. The dozen horses settled in, got water and hay, and then …

Then, for far too long, it was quiet.

“I don’t like this,” said Aron Wellman, president of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, who showed up to lend a hand. “Does it mean they’re not getting out?”

Information came through in dribs and drabs. Rescue trailers and vans were being kept out of the San Luis Rey area, now engulfed in fires. Horses were running loose at San Luis Rey and had to be caught. Vans were finally loaded and on their way. The sun set.

Finally, about 6 p.m. they started to arrive. A cavalcade of vans rumbling down the narrow, dark backstretch road, each driver hailed by Perez.

“Who are you from?”

“San Luis Rey.”

“No, who is the trainer?”

“I don’t know.”

Over the next six hours, the five barns in the far corner of the backstretch teemed with a tensely controlled chaos. Horses are empaths, keenly attuned to any anxiety or stress displayed by their handlers. The stablehands, freshly evacuated from a fiery hell, did their best to offer their horses a calming version of normality.

Trainers who availed themselves of San Luis Rey’s facilities, primarily for second strings, began showing up at Del Mar to account for their people and horses. Doug O’Neill held a horse in a stall while a vet examined an injured limb. Peter Miller, Phil D’Amato, Mark Glatt, and Richard Baltas all tried to gather their refugees in adjacent stalls.

“My guys did an amazing job,” said a disconsolate Miller, who was saddling horses at Los Alamitos when the San Luis Rey evacuations began. “I still haven’t found them all. But here’s ol’ St. Joe Bay. How are you, boy? Made it again.”

A big, dark brown head flopped over a stall door and allowed Miller a moment of affection. The stakes-winning gelding was in the Miller barn at San Luis Rey that suffered irreparable damage from a ferocious wind storm in January 2016.

Miller houses most of his main stable at San Luis Rey, including Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Stormy Liberal, who would have been among the evacuees if he wasn’t in Hong Kong preparing for one of the international races on Sunday. Roy H, Miller’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner, trains at Santa Anita.

“I think they all got out,” said Baltas, who maintains a large barn at San Luis Rey. “We were lucky. Our barn is on the top end of the property, so the fire really didn’t get to us like it did the others. Ruben is still there. I heard he was on the barn roof with a hose.”

That figures. Ruben Loza, a quiet rock of a horseman who helped make Bobby Frankel look good all those years, runs the Baltas barn at San Luis Rey. If anyone was going to be the last guy out, it would be Loza.

Then he arrived, about 9:30, his pickup stuffed to the gills with hayracks, buckets, blankets, and everything else needed to make Del Mar a temporary home away from what was left of home.

“I heard over the loudspeaker that everyone should get out,” Loza said, almost insulted at the thought. “I’m not going to go until all the horses and everybody else are out.”

Was this the first time he’d experienced a fire?

“Yes,” he replied. “And I hope the last.”

People gathered and wandered, helping however they could and sharing stories of the day, of the wild running horses set loose from their stalls, of heroic grooms and trainers like Joe Herrick, Cliff Sise, and Martine Bellocq, who braved the fires to save their animals.

Steve Rothblum, a former trainer who works for O’Neill, wandered alone along a row of stalls, eyeballing horses as if searching for a lost pet.

“We haven’t accounted for all of them yet,” Rothblum said. “Not sure we will, at least until we can get back up there.”

You would think that a veteran horseman like Rothblum would have seen it all by now, but the look in his eyes was haunted, lost in a waking nightmare.

“Unless you’ve been in a barn fire, you have no idea what it’s like,” Rothblum said. “The barn at my dad’s farm in New Mexico went up with 12 horses. It was amazing we only lost three. I was 11, and I will never, ever forget the heat, the sound, the smell. It stays with you forever.”

By 11 p.m. the trailer traffic was reduced to a trickle. A true count was impossible, but at least 200 Thoroughbreds from San Luis Rey were by then at Del Mar, with the rest of the some 400 evacuees either relocated at farms or in transit. Or perished. The overnight number released by racing officials was 25 dead.

The squad of volunteer veterinarians that had descended upon Del Mar were now doing their best to tend to the wounded in the shadowy shed rows and stalls. Most of the injuries were cuts and abrasions. Some damage was done to legs. In stall 33 of Barn OO, a gray filly pulled out of the flames by Herrick stood somberly on a bed of shavings, her face, chest, and forelegs smeared with burn ointment and her eyes swollen shut.

“She can’t see, so she’s getting a little testy,” said Laura Werner, an apprentice jockey.

Herrick had been hospitalized with third-degree burns, so Werner jumped in her truck and made a beeline for Del Mar to help with the filly, named Lovely Finish. The daughter of Marino Marini finished second in her promising first start, a maiden special weight, at Del Mar on Nov. 5.

“I rode work on her just two weeks ago,” Werner said. “She was brought here by an old guy, the only horse on his trailer. He said no one wanted to take her out of there, she was so badly burned.”

Lovely Finish shifted her weight and moved her head toward the sound of Werner’s voice.

“When I got here, she just put her head in my arms,” Werner said.

She checked her phone. From the hospital, Herrick had sent her a text.

“How are you?” it read.

Answer to come.