Updated on 06/27/2016 9:46AM

Hovdey: Racetrackers keep their cool under fire

Barbara D. Livingston
The San Gabriel Complex fires rage just miles east of Santa Anita Racetrack.

California is on fire again, or at least that is how it plays in the news markets, even though the hillsides and canyons affected by the fires amount to just 13,000 of the state’s 101 million acres.

It doesn’t sound like much until you get close enough to see the flames on the next ridge of the hills behind your house. Until you breathe the ash in the air and feel the change in temperature. Until you stand in fear and wonder at the sight of DC-10s and Huey helicopters flying low and dumping their red fire retardant and water.

As of Wednesday’s official reports, the fires on those 13,000 acres were under a varying amount of control. Near Santa Barbara, the nearly 8,000-acre Sherpa Fire was on its way to being contained, while in Los Angeles, the 5,000-acre San Gabriel Complex – where two smaller fires were being attacked as one large demon – was still putting up a nasty fight.

Raging only a matter of miles in the mountains east of Santa Anita Park, the San Gabriel Complex hit close to home for scores of racetrackers. Trainer Vladimir Cerin shared an eerie video taken from his home in the horse haven of Bradbury on Monday night, when fires danced unchecked atop the mountains just to the northeast.

“We evacuated the horses last night,” said Cerin, whose property also serves as a rehab center for racetrack clients. “We took them to Santa Anita. I went to work this morning, but then they wouldn’t let me get back to my home.”

Restrictions on residents and evacuations in Bradbury, Duarte, and other small communities in the area were ramping up throughout Tuesday. Trainer Matt Chew and his wife, Candace Coder Chew, a Santa Anita Park executive, were part of a crew of volunteers – many from the racetrack – that evacuated the Encanto Equestrian Center located in the path of the spreading fire.

“I went up there at first and thought there wouldn’t be a problem,” said Matt Chew. “I hooked up my trailer, just in case, and the next thing I knew, I looked up and the flames were about 100 feet from my truck. It went from no big deal to real serious real quick.”

Trailers from Hubbard transport were on the scene in short order, and horses were loaded under the supervision of experienced hands like the Chews and retired jockey David Neusch.

“There were a few of the non-racetrackers in a panic and running in circles,” Chew said. “But the racetrackers said, ‘Let’s get it done.’ We had 54 horses out of there before you knew it.”

There were exceptions.

“I did have one Percheron who beat the hell out of me,” Chew said. “That’s about 2,500 pounds of horse that’s not used to being out of his corral. He dragged me around like a rag doll. Dave had to come put a second chain on him so we could guide him to the trailer. All we could really do was point him in the right direction and hope he walked on. Thankfully, he did.”

Retired jockey Joy Scott boards her 10-year-old former racehorse at El Encanto and was on the scene as soon as she heard the news.

“He practically ran onto the van,” Scott said. “He knew there was something bad going on and couldn’t get out of there quick enough.”

The bulk of the horses evacuated from the threatened areas to Fairplex Park in Pomona, just a few miles east. Fairplex no longer hosts either racing or training, but stalls remain, including those formerly used by Barretts sales company.

“We’ve been through this before,” said Kim Lloyd, Barretts general manager. “And we’ve got a pretty good system of making sure we keep the show horses separate from the racehorses.”

Lloyd does not need to be told twice that fire and horses never mix. He was baptized early in his racetrack career.

“It was at Keystone racetrack,” Lloyd said. “I was just a kid. We had an apartment right next to the track, and we were about ready to go back for afternoon chores when we could see the fire in the barns.”

The fire in August 1975 killed 12 horses trained by J.P. Dorignac III, who had been among the top 10 race-winning trainers of 1974.

“By the time we got there, the horses were already burned,” Lloyd said. “Even the ones that survived were never the same after inhaling all the smoke.”

By Wednesday morning, the San Gabriel fires were traveling north, away from the populated areas, but still no more than 10 percent contained. Lloyd reported that Fairplex was now home to 70 Thoroughbreds and 135 horses of various other breeds, including that Percheron.

“As people will do in an emergency, everybody is stepping up,” Lloyd said. “Citrus Feed brought over enough hay for a couple hundred horses. Fairplex staff brought food, water, and drinks for the people. We got hold of a vet in case any horse needed to be tranquilized. So, everybody is kind of dialed in.

“You know, horses are good as long as they’re around other horses,” Lloyd added. “Moving from barn to barn is traumatic enough. But give them a little alfalfa and some water, they’ll kind of settle down and take a deep breath. And they can stay here as long as they need to.”