10/29/2003 12:00AM

Track now a haven from inferno

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DEL MAR, Calif. - They started arriving last Sunday, horses by the score, some of them singed, most of them scared, and all of them lucky to be alive after fleeing from the path of the fires burning helter-skelter through the eastern reaches of San Diego County.

The fires are unprecedented in Southern California's recorded history, and the towns involved have been in the news all week long. They have names like Poway, Ramona, and Valley Center, all of them horsey to the core. When the flames approached, and fire officials called for evacuation, hundreds of residents were faced with the problem of finding safe haven for their evacuated horses.

People like Chuck and Judy Hayes, who looked out over the back of their Poway property last Sunday and watched the flames from the massive Cedar Fire crest the nearby hills.

"There were no firefighters there yet," Chuck Hayes said. "Nothing fighting it from the air. It was just those flames, coming straight for us. Then it stopped before it got to us. Don't ask me why."

More than 10,000 families have been evacuated since the weekend. Many of those families with horses ended up at Del Mar, which is located about 30 miles from the westernmost edge of the fire. Overnight, the nearly deserted stables were transformed from sleepy, off-season hibernation into an equine version of Noah's ark. Horse trailers pulled in, dispatched their cargo, and then sped back to the danger zones for fresh loads.

By Monday, nearly 700 of the 1,200 available stalls were occupied by evacuated horses. Some 200 were without identification, true refugees, while the others at least had the comfort of familiar faces.

"Peaches is doing pretty good," said Candy Methven, who watched the fire approach to within a couple of hundred yards of her Poway home. "Although I'm not sure how I made it. I'd just bought that old trailer a few months ago - the one parked over there with the rusted door - and I hadn't even used it before Sunday."

Peaches, a 19-year-old Arab-mustang mix, stood in her Del Mar stall as if she had been born to the races. Her head barely cleared the lower half of the stall's Dutch doors.

"She's barely 14 hands and not very fast," Methven said. "And I never thought she'd be stabled at a place like Del Mar. But after this, I'm betting on Peaches to win."

Not all of the evacuees were handling things as well as Peaches. Junior, a 10-year-old Tennessee Walker owned by Chuck and Judy Hayes, suffered scrapes when he vaulted the door of his Del Mar stall, while Corky, their 20-year-old Arab, had refused to load when time came to evacuate.

"It was terrible," Judy Hayes said. "The wind was howling, the fire was in sight, and we couldn't get him up the ramp. We were finally forced to leave without him, but we only got as far as the bottom of the hill before we looked at each other and said, 'No way. This guy has been part of our family for 20 years.' We got some help, went back, and finally got him loaded."

Del Mar is situated on the property of the San Diego County Fairgrounds, which maintains a year-round staff to supervise a variety of events. Last Sunday, the attraction was a BMX bike race.

"By that afternoon we were moving the bikes out one end of the stable area and bringing horses in through the other end," said Channa Mannen, the fair's deputy general manager. "I thought that someday we might be designated as some kind of emergency site, but I always thought it would be for a flood."

The horse community is notorious for rising to emergency occasions, and racetracks always have done their part. Del Mar's president, Joe Harper, whose family bred and raced horses, arrived at the track first thing Monday to find, in his words, "a lot of hungry horses."

"We just started throwing hay in stalls and putting water in buckets," Harper said. "Our whole crew seemed to show up to help. Bob the painter is now the official carrot guy. Mark Anderson, head of our catering, was over there at a grill, cooking hot dogs and flipping burgers."

On Wednesday morning, Mannen and her crew of staff and volunteers still were trying to find the owners of about 20 horses that remained unidentified. Photographs of the lost were being circulated, and pictures were being posted on the San Diego County Fair website (sdfair.com). Meanwhile, an officer from the state Department of Animal Control was manning the stable gate, making sure that anyone leaving was leaving with the right horse.

"Why don't horse people put computer chips in their horses, like people do with their dogs?" Mannen wondered. "It would make identification so much easier."

By late Wednesday morning, Chuck and Judy Hayes had gotten the all-clear to return home, and not a moment too soon for Junior and Corky.

"I have a feeling Corky will load just fine this time if he knows he's going home," Judy Hayes said.

"The people here have been great. We couldn't have asked for more at such a terrible time. Once we get back home, and everybody is safe and sound, it will be our turn to help some other family who was not as fortunate as us."