12/12/2017 11:06AM

Hovdey: San Luis Rey tour reveals fire's random fury

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Jay Hovdey
A burned-out shell is all that remains of tack rooms at the west end of Phil D’Amato’s barn. Stablehands lost everything but the clothing on their backs.

Kevin Habell, general manager of San Luis Rey Downs, steered his dusty SUV up past the equipment yard and towering hay barn to the far eastern reaches of the 240-acre property. It was Monday afternoon, four days after a vicious piece of the Lilac Fire had done its worst, and Habell was showing a visitor exactly how the wind-blown flames had attacked the training center, gutting seven barns and damaging part of another, while killing as many as 46 of the 450 horses stabled there.

Habell pointed to a blackened hillside, with unharmed houses at the top, descending to the center’s cyclone fence line.

:: THE SAN LUIS REY FIRE AFTERMATH: Click to view Jay Hovdey's photos from San Luis Rey Downs

“That’s where it came from, before it kind of stalled,” Habell said. “Then the winds came and picked it up. It jumped this little pony barn – wasn’t even touched – and landed here, in my salvage yard, before hopping again down there by the manure pile.”

The salvage yard was reduced to a charred, twisted tangle of metal beams and corrugated roofing, useless now as anything but dark modern art.
“I built the pony barn from that material,” Habell said. “It was from what was left of Barn H that went in the storm last year.”

Whoa. Did he mean the barn of trainer Peter Miller that had its roof ripped off and stalls torn apart in the ferocious wind event 23 months ago? It was blown away AND burned to a crisp?

“That’s the one,” Habell said. “I don’t think it was ever meant to survive.”

Habell, a big man with a lifetime of horse experience, has taken considerable pride in the resurrected reputation of the training center under the ownership of the Stronach Group. About to enjoy a rare holiday, he was in Las Vegas set to attend the National Finals Rodeo when the fire started late on the morning of Dec. 7. Habell made it back to San Luis Rey in four hours flat, in constant touch with his training center staff, then talked his way through a police barrier to be on the scene for the mass evacuation and disheartening aftermath.

“I looked down once at the speedometer and saw I was going 110,” Habell said. “I backed off a little. It wouldn’t have done any good killing myself.”

Now he was driving slowly past the large manure dump site and down a ridge pockmarked with burned patches testifying to the capricious hopscotching of the flames. Habell swung back toward the east and pointed downslope to the row of barns flanking the south edge of the stables. In the immediate line of site were barns N and G, both gutted, and Barns E and F, both untouched.

“We’ll swing around down there for a closer look,” Habell said.

Heading back west, he turned north down a road between the long barns F and G. On the right, the painted adobe brick of Barn F was still a relatively pristine creamy white. On the left, Barn G, of more contemporary pre-fab design, was a charred shell of metal frames and a sagging tin roof. Anyone familiar with the site will recall the metal, tree-shaded pen where 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri lolled in the afternoon sunshine during the two years she was stabled there with Laura de Seroux. The pen and the tree still stood, but inside her stall was toast, now sadly known as the barn where trainer Martine Bellocq sustained life-threatening burns while trying to save her horses.

“I’ve heard talk of how the adobe barns didn’t burn because they were made of brick,” Habell said. “The evidence just doesn’t tell us that. There’s stuff that would have burned had the flames gone that way. But they didn’t. They hit the others, found a fuel source in the straw and hay, and went from there, pushed by the winds.”

Habell slowed at the stretch of stalls once occupied by the horses of trainer Ed Freeman, a popular Brit who long ago made California his home.
“Look – Ed’s ice machine and washing machine,” Havell said.

Both appliances stood untouched, in stark contrast to their surroundings.

“Ed said if they’d known, they could have all gathered around the washer,” Habell said. “But that’s his sense of humor.”

Habell made the turn near the main stable gate and headed around the perimeter road, past Peter Miller’s new Barn H, which was rebuilt with sturdy, reasonably fireproof material this year in the wake of its 2016 destruction.

“It would have come through okay,” Habell said. “But a spark caught the hay room there at the center of the barn and I lost 10 stalls.”

The drive down the perimeter road and back toward the main gate revealed what was left of Barns I through N. Structures were reduced to skeletons, muck bins in ashes, objects recognizable only after a moment’s study. The roof of the barn occupied by the horses of Scott Hansen, where a reported 15 horses were killed, had melted and was draped like an obscene waterfall along one side of the shed row. A pickup truck, burned beyond recognition, was buried halfway up its wheels in its own ashes.

“That was a feed guy who drove back here to help,” Habell said.

The vegetable garden nurtured by Joe Herrick had been consumed, leaving only a couple of stubborn agave succulents. Herrick lost a reported six horses and was hospitalized with third-degree burns.

“Want a reason never to drink Gatorade again?” Habell said, pointing to a pile of plastic bottles with familiar labels filled with orange liquid. “Whatever it is, it kept the plastic from burning.”

Wildfire can be maddeningly random. There were other strange survivors. The iron jockeys painted in the colors of owner Martin Wygod and trainer Cliff Sise stood side by side at the edge of Barn J, awaiting orders. A brace of nearby sawhorses were undamaged, one of them a refugee from Hollywood Park, its paint unblistered. A satellite dish refused to burn, as did a pair of electrical transformer boxes. But the planks and posts of a heavy-duty plastic, three-rail fence were reduced to giant noodles, and a section of metal pipe guard rail was bent as if pounded by Thor’s hammer.

“A horse,” Habell said, in barely a whisper, leaving the imagination to go from there.

“We collected eight dead out on the track or the infield, from shock, or smoke inhalation, or heart failure,” Habell said. “The rest my men removed from the barns. I think I’ll want to get them some counselling.”

The grim tour had ended.

“I’ve got a track and 200 stalls,” Habell noted. “Can we be in operation in a couple of weeks? I hope so. After that, it will be a matter of demolishing the burned barns, and then building new barns on pads we’ve already graded, enough for another 300 stalls to bring us back to 500. Hopefully, at some point down the line we’ll be able to add barns where the others burned.”

Habell paused. At heart he knew the catastrophe required more than a cold-eyed restart.

“I really think we should build some kind of memorial there,” he said. “Someday, when we get all the names, we should have a memorial to the 46.”