01/08/2016 3:30PM

Hovdey: Where the turf meets the microburst


Peter Miller, fresh off the best year of his career, was enjoying a little bit of rare “me time” Wednesday at a North San Diego County card club when his phone chirped a text alert.

“Ignore it,” whispered the devil on one shoulder. “You’re two hundred bucks up and on a roll.”

“Answer it,” insisted the nagging voice of conscience. “You’re a horse trainer, not a poker player.”

So, he looked. It was from Kevin Havell, who manages the training center at San Luis Rey Downs. Havell’s message was simple, and surreal.

“A tornado just blew the roof off your barn.”

So much for Miller’s poker face.

“I’m not sure they believed me when I said I had to cash in,” Miller said. “Heck, I don’t think I would have believed me.”

Miller arrived at his stable half an hour later to find that a large portion of the corrugated tin roof covering one his two 40-stall barns had been peeled off and flung over the top. Pieces of the roof had crashed through the shed row overhang on the opposite side of the barn. Support posts and their concrete footings were uprooted. One of them had spun loose in the wind and sliced through the ceiling of a stall.

According to Miller and his assistant trainer Stephanie Korger, there were no serious injuries, either horse or human. “I guess you could say we were lucky it happened when it did,” Korger said. “It was just before feeding time. We had just walked the horses and put them away. Everybody was here, so when it happened, we were able to see to the horses right away.”

There wasn’t much notice. The rain was falling, and the wind was up, but suddenly, just before 4 p.m., the gusts intensified.

“I was down at that end of the barn,” Korger said. “When it hit, it sounded like you were standing next to a train. I’m from Nebraska, and I came out here to get away from those things.”

A visitor tried to lighten the mood.

“Did you take any pictures?” Korger was asked.

“No,” she replied, stunned by the absurdity of the thought. “I took cover.”

It was the day after, and Korger was putting on a brave act, but anyone could tell that the whole crew was still rattled to the core. The stricken barn was strewn with debris. Stablehands went through the motions of cleanup knowing full well that the structure – their workplace and, for some, their home – would need to be demolished.

“And we were just remodeling the office,” Korger said with a sigh.

Angelina Soto was standing at the end of the barn that took the brunt of the force, taking pictures with her phone. She was there when it hit. “It came from there,” she said, pointing to a grassy hill just to the west, “then went underneath here and took the roof. It was strong, very strong.”

What Soto was describing was in fact later confirmed by a representative of the National Weather Service not as the behavior of a tornado but of a microburst, which impacts a much smaller area of terrain. The microburst begins with a rapid descent of wind, as fast as 60 miles per hour, from the base of a thunderstorm system. When the downburst hits the ground, powerful bursts of wind gain speed and shoot outward in straight lines, curling upward as they move.

Apparently, the Miller barn got in the way of the curl from one of these outbursts. Kevin Havell was near the training center’s office when it happened, just east of the Miller barn.

“I thought it was one of those dust devils,” Havell said. “The wind came tearing past the office and tore some shingles loose from the top of the Richard Baltas barn, then took part of a tree and dropped it at the back of the property. When it died down, I saw what it had done to Pete’s barn. That was no dust devil.”

The barns of San Luis Rey Downs date back to the early 1970s. The original structures are made of adobe brick on solid wood frames, while the second wave of barns were metal and plywood prefabs, like Miller’s.

Ruben Losa, who runs the Baltas string at San Luis Rey, was grateful that his barn was made of brick.

“I saw it coming and ran to get my phone to take a picture,” Losa said. “But it went by too fast. This is all I got.”

Losa displayed his phone, showing a dissipating dark cloud against a stormy gray backdrop, retreating to the east.

There were other microbursts reported in the area Wednesday afternoon and a tornado warning for the area just south of Del Mar. The Miller horses in Barn H were moved, training returned to normal, and everyone knocked on what wood they could find in gratitude that Mother Nature had not taken any casualties, this time.

The closest of calls could be boasted by Red Outlaw, a multiple stakes winner who had been entered that morning for an optional claimer on Saturday at Santa Anita. It was his stall through which the support post with the concrete footing crashed, while the 5-year-old gelding stood innocently to one side, awaiting his afternoon meal.

“Good thing the feed tub wasn’t in there yet,” said Miller, which would have put Red Outlaw squarely on target. “Can you imagine making that call? ‘Excuse me, sir, but your horse was killed by a tornado in San Diego.’ ”

That’s microburst, not tornado.

“Or maybe the Big Bad Wolf,” Miller shot back. “Whatever it was almost blew my whole barn down.”

And how about Red Outlaw? Was he too shaken to run in his race on Saturday?

“Run?” replied Miller. “Are you kidding? He’s going to blow them away.”