A year later, wounds knit and a tree grows

Daily Racing Form National Digital Edition - - News - JAY HOVDEY

Mon­ster Man was a 3-year-old son of Un­bri­dled’s Song with two wins from 10 starts after mix­ing it up with some of the best young grass horses in the West for trainer Scott Hansen and owner Gary Broad. As De­cem­ber of 2017 dawned, he was be­ing pre­pared at San Luis Rey Downs for what promised to be a prof­itable 4-year-old cam­paign.

Cal­i­for­nia Di­a­mond was a 4-year-old geld­ing who had run out nearly half a mil­lion in earn­ings from his San Luis Rey Downs stall. The son of Har­bor the Gold fin­ished fourth in the Cary Grant Stakes at Del Mar on Nov. 19, 2017, and trainer Peter Miller was look­ing ahead to a stakes race for Cal-breds at Los Alamitos in De­cem­ber.

Riri was a 5-year-old mare by Speight­stown who came within a length of win­ning the Mizdi­rec­tion Stakes at Santa Anita in April of 2017. She was at Los Alamitos with the Phil D’Amato sta­ble be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to the trainer’s string at San Luis Rey Downs for some time in the peace and quiet of the train­ing cen­ter as the year drew to a close.

Ral Rue, a 5-year-old gelded son of Any Given Satur­day, was still a maiden after 14 starts through the sum­mer of 2017, but had fin­ished sec­ond in three of his pre­vi­ous four starts, so things were look­ing up. Joe Her­rick, his ever-pa­tient owner and trainer who called San Luis Rey home, was not about to throw in the towel.

By the af­ter­noon of Dec. 7, 2017, they were all dead, along with 40 of their fel­low Thor­ough­breds and two sta­ble ponies caught up in the flames of the Li­lac Fire. A spark from a ve­hi­cle on nearby In­ter­state 15 was the ap­par­ent cause, send­ing flames through low hills and dry brush to even­tu­ally threaten the south rim of the train­ing cen­ter. Then, in an in­stant, fierce, capri­cious winds pushed the flames abruptly to the north, ig­nit­ing the fronds of tow­er­ing palms and ex­plod­ing through the near­est shed rows.

Of the 157 struc­tures de­stroyed in the 4,100-acre blaze sur­round­ing the north San Diego County com­mu­ni­ties of Fall­brook and Bon­sall, seven were barns at San Luis Rey, with se­vere dam­age to an eighth. Stable­hands re­leased their fright­ened horses, hop­ing they would gather on the one-mile train­ing track at a dis­tance from the fire while wait­ing for evac­u­a­tion trail­ers to make their way

through a tan­gle of emer­gency ve­hi­cles.

By mid­night, some 200 of the 475 horses who lived at the train­ing cen­ter had found refuge at Del Mar, 30 miles to the south. The oth­ers were scat­tered at farms closer to San Luis Rey Downs, asy­lum seek­ers mer­ci­fully wel­comed by strangers. And then there were the 46 left be­hind.

Candy Twist (by Twirling Candy), Baby Bruin (by Esk­endreya), Mal­ibu Vixen (by Mal­ibu Moon), Amalfi Drive (by Flat­ter), and Odds­maker (by Morn­ing Line) were among a dozen 2-year-olds who died in fire be­fore they ever faced the heat of a horse race.

Cat Dreamer, an 11-yearold former race­horse turned pony, was one of 15 horses killed in the rav­aged barn of Scott Hansen. Cliff Sise lost five, in­clud­ing three ba­bies about to turn 2 – by Qual­ity Road, City Zip, and Into Mis­chief – all of them gone be­fore they even had names.

In his ef­forts to save his horses, Sise singed his hair and ears. Joe Her­rick suf­fered third de­gree burns on his chest and arms. Mar­tine Bel­locq, who tried un­suc­cess­fully to pull her colt Wild Bill Hick­ory out of a flam­ing stall, was burned so badly she had to be placed in a coma to sta­bi­lize her me­tab­o­lism while sur­geons fought to keep her alive. Mirac­u­lously, she sur­vived.

“I know it was only a year ago, but with all we’ve gone through and had to do it seems like a whole lot longer,” said Kevin Ha­bell, who man­ages the train­ing cen­ter for The Stronach Group.

Two large can­vas-topped struc­tures now stand where the burned barns were cleared, hous­ing some 248 horses for up­ward of 20 dif­fer­ent train­ers. A cou­ple dozen por­ta­ble tack rooms are ar­ranged nearby in a colony of liv­ing quar­ters on ground where Wild Bill Hick­ory died. Me­tal con­tain­ers now serve as fire-proof stor­age units for the hay and bed­ding that erupted into flames and ac­cel­er­ated the fire.

The tall Wash­ing­to­nia palms that dropped their deadly fronds onto barns were re­moved, but one small king palm re­mains at the back of the prop­erty, near the point at which the fire jumped the fence. A plot of grass grows around the mod­est tree, of­fer­ing a place of med­i­ta­tion for those so in­clined.

“We couldn’t be­lieve it sur­vived,” Ha­bell said. “We kind of look at it as a sym­bol for the rest of us re­fus­ing to give up.”

For the past month, the new struc­tures have un­der­gone retrofitting for fire sprin­klers to com­ply with build­ing codes that were tem­po­rar­ily waived so that horses could re­turn to San Luis Rey Downs be­gin­ning last April. The horses oc­cu­py­ing those 248 stalls were re­lo­cated with their peo­ple once again to Del Mar in early Novem­ber, and they will re­main there un­til around Dec. 14, ac­cord­ing to Ha­bell.

For that rea­son, there will be no of­fi­cial com­mem­o­ra­tion of the one-year an­niver­sary on Fri­day. Ha­bell said that “once the fam­ily is back to­gether again” a proper event would be ar­ranged.

In the mean­time, trainer Michelle Dol­lase is mark­ing Dec. 7 by host­ing a lun­cheon at a lo­cal restau­rant. Her barn was spared any fire dam­age, but she and her crew had a front-row view of the hor­rific scene un­fold­ing as they evac­u­ated their horses to safety.

“Some of my peo­ple had night­mares and sleep­ing prob­lems after the ex­pe­ri­ence,” Dol­lase said. “That’s to be ex­pected. But at the same time I think it brought every­one who works here closer to­gether. And we’ve all be­come ‘ex­perts’ on fires.

“Still, some­one asked me if we’re ready if it hap­pens again,” Dol­lase added. “I mean, the way that fire be­haved, how could you be? It was like a loose horse. You didn’t know which way it would turn.”

The Li­lac Fire did not com­pare to the mon­strous fires named Camp and Woolsey that raged in Cal­i­for­nia last month. There were no hu­man fa­tal­i­ties, and within five days the fire was 95 per­cent con­tained. Still, the deaths of so many horses from a be­trayal of na­ture tested the peo­ple of San Luis Rey Downs to lim­its they’d never known.

“The re­minders are al­ways with us,” said Peter Miller, whose large sta­ble is among those cur­rently dis­placed. “Look at us, back at Del Mar like we were a year ago. Talk about a flash­back.

“And when we’re back at San Luis Rey, I’ll still have to walk by Cal­i­for­nia Di­a­mond’s stall ev­ery day,” Miller added. “When you know their per­son­al­i­ties, when you pet them ev­ery day, run your hand down their legs, all that makes it very dif­fi­cult.”

Los Bor­ra­chos was a 7-year-old son of Pul­pit who had won six of his 36 starts and hit the board an­other dozen times for a va­ri­ety of train­ers, in­clud­ing Bill Mott. On Nov. 30, 2017, he was claimed for the sec­ond time by Miller and moved from his former stall at Los Alamitos to the Miller sta­ble at San Luis Rey Downs. Seven days later he was dead, a vic­tim of the fire.

“He was just a re­ally cool horse, a real hard-knock­ing guy,” Miller said. “He won for us be­fore, so it was a no-brainer to try and take him back. But I had to win a shake to get him.”

In 1927, Thornton Wilder pub­lished a story about how five strangers came to be on a bridge span­ning a deep chasm in South Amer­ica. The bridge col­lapsed, send­ing them all to their deaths. There was no ap­par­ent rhyme or rea­son as to why those five should have con­verged at that place in that mo­ment, and no ex­pla­na­tion was of­fered.

“Ei­ther we live by ac­ci­dent and die by ac­ci­dent, or we live by plan and die by plan,” con­cluded Wilder’s nar­ra­tor. Miller had to win a shake to get him. The name of the book is “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”

“I don’t think I want to read that,” Miller said. “Not ever.”

This is ded­i­cated to the 46.


A sin­gle palm tree stands sen­tinel by two new can­vas-topped struc­tures at San Luis Rey Downs.


The hard-knock­ing Los Bor­ra­chos, a 7-year-old who had just been claimed by Peter Miller, died in the Dec. 7, 2017, fire at San Luis Rey Downs.

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