Through the flames

Al­most a year ago, fire rav­aged an equine cen­ter near San Diego, killing 46 horses. A filly and trainer are help­ing each other heal.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY JOE TONE

The days were bad enough. He woke around dawn, a haz­ard of both his job and the pain. On the “good” days, the nurses just changed his ban­dages, an an­noy­ing half-hour or­deal; on the bad ones, the doc­tors scrubbed his wounds, a process so painful it re­quired a steady IV of painkillers. Oth­er­wise he spent the days wait­ing for vis­i­tors to bring food — any­thing but hos­pi­tal food — and to bring up­dates about Lovely’s con­di­tion. Through it all, he did his least fa­vorite thing, the thing he had spent his life try­ing to avoid. He sat. ¶ The days were bad enough, but it was night­time that Joe Her­rick thought might kill him. The vis­i­tors went home. The hos­pi­tal went quiet. Joe ran out of things to keep him from fall­ing asleep. So he fell, and there he was again, night af­ter night, trapped in some jum­bled, hazy re­play of the worst day of his life, a vivid hellscape of bro­ken horse bones, smok­ing flesh and fall­ing fire­balls.

Which is why, af­ter 12 nights in the hos­pi­tal, Joe de­cided he had had enough. When he ar­rived, doc­tors told him he would be there for months. Later, when they de­ter­mined that he some­how didn’t need skin grafts, they told him he would be there for weeks. Now, af­ter just 12 days, he was telling them, “I’m done.”

His kids came that morn­ing, as they did ev­ery morn­ing. But in­stead of feed­ing and com­fort­ing him, they packed his things and got a tu­to­rial on how to treat his wounds. They fig­ured they would drive him home, where his dog and his horses might help fend off the night­mares. But Joe had an­other idea.

A hor­ri­fy­ing turn

The day of the Lilac Fire — Dec. 7, 2017 — started like most, with Joe lift­ing his lanky, 5-foot-11 frame out of bed at about 5 a.m. He al­ways liked the quiet out there, on his ranch in the scrubby hills north of San Diego, and it was as quiet as ever. His kids were grown and gone. His ex-wife had moved out a cou­ple of years ear­lier. It was just Joe and his yel­low lab, Bingo, now. They checked on Joe’s dozen horses, fed the koi, climbed into the truck and drove to­ward the light­en­ing hori­zon.

They ar­rived at about 6:30. The San Luis Rey Train­ing Cen­ter is a 250-acre equine play­ground in Bon­sall, Calif., an hour north of San Diego. It’s home to train­ers big and small who work their horses be­fore ship­ping them to Del Mar, Santa Anita and tracks all over the coun­try. That in­cludes Peter Miller, a top-12 trainer whose horses win mil­lions ev­ery year. And it in­cludes Joe Her­rick, a for­mer mo­tel op­er­a­tor whose horses win tens of thou­sands.

There were 450 horses on the grounds that day. Joe trained seven of them. He owned part or all of four. Some, such as the pow­er­ful geld­ing Call Me First, hadn’t done much on the track but looked promis­ing. An­other bulky geld­ing, Ral Rue, had helped keep the lights on, fin­ish­ing sec­ond sev­eral times and rack­ing up $40,000 in ca­reer earn­ings. But it was a filly named Lovely Fin­ish who had re­cently cap­tured Joe’s heart.

He had picked her out at a year­ling sale the pre­vi­ous year. She had a salt-and-pep­per coat, a short black mane and small, dark eyes. She had run her first race a month ear­lier, tak­ing sec­ond at Del Mar, and Joe had high hopes for her next race, which was only a few days away. She nick­ered like al­ways when she saw Joe walk­ing to­ward her stall that morn­ing, know­ing it was time for their walk along the edge of the palm­stud­ded grounds. The grooms called her Joe’s “girl­friend.”

Fire was on Joe’s mind as they walked. It was fire season in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and ev­ery fire season seemed to trump the pre­vi­ous. It was on his mind be­cause he had horses, and when you have horses, fire season comes with a spe­cial brand of anx­i­ety over how you will move them if the fires come. Over the years, Joe had used his trailer to evac­u­ate too many horses to count.

There were no fires threat­en­ing the train­ing cen­ter that morn­ing, but they were rag­ing all over the state. The Tubbs Fire, up in wine coun­try, had burned through most of Oc­to­ber, de­stroy­ing thou­sands of homes and killing 22 peo­ple. The Thomas Fire had been torch­ing the hills around Santa Bar­bara for weeks. San Diego had re­ceived al­most no rain since Oct. 1, and Joe could feel those warm Santa Ana winds on his face as he put Lovely through her paces.

They were done by mid­morn­ing. Joe said good­bye to Lovely, packed up Bingo and was driv­ing home at about 11:30 when a firetruck passed. Joe silently urged it not to turn to­ward the San Luis Rey, but it ig­nored his plea. Joe did a U-turn and fol­lowed it onto the grounds.

A car had ig­nited a brush fire near Lilac Road. Joe could see plumes of smoke creep­ing over the hill­tops to the east. He called his ex and asked her to have her horse trail­ers on standby, in case they needed to evac­u­ate, and he be­gan soak­ing his barn with wa­ter. He hoped the fire­fight­ers could hold the fire off or re­di­rect it. But soon they saw a thick cloud of black smoke ris­ing from a nearby canyon. The fire was on them.

Bon­sall is a horse town. There were able-bod­ied, trailer-tot­ing horse­men in ev­ery di­rec­tion, and they all kept in close con­tact dur­ing fire season. There were even spe­cific horse-evac­u­a­tion pages on Face­book. But the blaze was mov­ing so quickly that fire of­fi­cials were al­ready clos­ing roads and evac­u­at­ing peo­ple. Be­fore the train­ers could even start load­ing horses, a San Diego County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment truck roared through the grounds, kick­ing dust into the wind. “Ev­ery­one’s got to go,” the deputy bel­lowed.

A lot of them lis­tened. A lot didn’t. Joe con­tin­ued hos­ing down his barn, still hop­ing to truck his horses to safety. But Chuck Jenk­ins, the vet work­ing that day, started spread­ing word that it was time to turn the horses loose.

“We’ve got mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of horses here!” one of the train­ers said.

“You’re go­ing to have mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of dead horses!” Jenk­ins told him.

For Joe, it was the ul­ti­mate last re­sort. He’s at once a nur­tur­ing and con­trol­ling horse­man, a man who al­ways puts the an­i­mal first and trusts no one to care for his horses more than he trusts him­self. He even breaks most of his own year­lings, a phys­i­cally de­mand­ing, pa­tience-testing task usu­ally re­served for younger cow­boys. Now he was faced with open­ing his stall doors and let­ting his run­ners run.

The wind kicked up. An or­ange-tinted fog fell over the train­ing cen­ter. Em­bers must have found their way into the palm leaves, be­cause those trees lit up like tiki torches. Joe and the oth­ers hur­ried to get hal­ters onto their horses be­fore cut­ting them loose, so they could be caught and iden­ti­fied later.

He pulled on Lovely Fin­ish’s hal­ter and led her out of her stall. Then, from be­hind, a blast of heat. A burn­ing palm frond, fall­ing from a brit­tle tree­top some 80 feet in the air, wal­loped Joe and Lovely, de­vour­ing their flesh. She bolted into open space, where horses were stam­ped­ing in cir­cles of con­fu­sion. Many got so scared that they turned back for their barns. Their barns were se­cu­rity. Their barns were also filled with wood chips and dry al­falfa.

Joe found a hose and doused his smol­der­ing flesh. Then he took off run­ning, hop­ing to chase down Lovely and keep her safe. She saw him and peeled off from the stam­pede. He gripped her hal­ter, pulled her into a barn and built a fortress of sawhorses to pro­tect them from the may­hem. Then he found Jenk­ins, the vet, and asked him to dose the filly with pain meds and a tran­quil­izer.

Jenk­ins urged Joe to get in the am­bu­lance that had blared onto the grounds, but Joe brushed the doc off, des­per­ate to make sure Lovely made it out alive. The in­sis­tent fire­fight­ers, to­gether with the mount­ing pain, were more per­sua­sive. Joe climbed into the am­bu­lance, where medics shot him up with mor­phine.

They shipped him to the burn unit at UC San Diego. His face was swollen and hot and specked with burns; his arms were burned to a crisp. The of­fi­cial di­ag­no­sis: sec­ond- and third-de­gree burns over 23 per­cent of his body. Still, he man­aged to work the phones, im­plor­ing fam­ily and friends to find Bingo and his horses.

Back at the train­ing cen­ter, fire­fight­ers con­trolled the flames. Jenk­ins started treat­ing the horses that had been turned loose. He eu­th­a­nized a few that broke legs dur­ing the stam­pede. A few lay dead on the track, hav­ing ba­si­cally run them­selves to death amid the hazy chaos. But most of the horses sur­vived, find­ing refuge else­where on the grounds. Vol­un­teer horse­men pulled in and started truck­ing them to nearby ranches and race­tracks, to be treated and cared for un­til their own­ers could re­claim them.

But as night fell, Joe’s horses were nowhere to be found. As it turned out, two barns — the two clos­est to the row of burn­ing palm trees — had been hit first and fast by the fire. When work­ers dug through the charred re­mains of those barns, they found 46 dead horses. Six of them were Joe’s.

To­gether again

In the hos­pi­tal, Joe kept ask­ing about his horses, and his fam­ily and friends kept chang­ing the sub­ject. His blood pres­sure was 225/175 — “I should have had a stroke,” he said — and they wor­ried that the truth would send him ca­reen­ing fur­ther into his pit of de­pres­sion. But the news was spread­ing across Face­book and text chains, and there was no hope of stop­ping it. When he fi­nally learned the truth, Joe lay in bed and wept.

The next 12 days pro­ceeded in that gru­el­ing cy­cle: long, painful days fol­lowed by the har­row­ing dark. The only high­lights came when­ever a vis­i­tor ar­rived with an up­date on Lovely. Some Good Sa­mar­i­tan had ap­par­ently res­cued the filly from the train­ing cen­ter and trucked her to Del Mar.

Joe’s daugh­ter and ex-wife had then trans­ported her to a nearby an­i­mal hos­pi­tal. She was puffy and burned and sullen, and ini­tially the doc­tors thought she might lose her eye­sight. But within a few days, the swelling started to go down, her vi­sion came back, and her de­meanor and ap­petite im­proved. Her vis­i­tors were even able to get her out of her stall and walk her. They ar­rived in Joe’s hos­pi­tal room with pic­tures and peppy up­dates for Joe: “She’s rav­en­ous for the car­rots!” “She’s got a lot of life in her!”

Then the vis­i­tors left and night fell, and Joe drifted off to­ward his per­sonal an­i­mated hell. So on that 12th day, he checked him­self out and told his kids to drive him not home but to the an­i­mal hos­pi­tal. Within the hour, they were all stand­ing in a wash rack, watch­ing Joe gen­tly lay his hands on Lovely’s coat. She nick­ered at the sight of him.

A few days later, they trucked the filly back to Joe’s house. She needed to move. They both did. Lovely Fin­ish was still only 2, so her en­ergy re­serves could ei­ther be spent walk­ing a track or wreak­ing havoc in her stall. Joe was 55 and in pain, but he had never been one for sit­ting. Be­fore the fire, he played at least four soc­cer games a week, most of them with guys half his age. He knew work­ing Lovely would help him get back in soc­cer shape. The prob­lem was, there was nowhere to work her. He and his ex-wife, Julie, had di­vided the ranch in two when they split up. Joe lost his rid­ing arena in the di­vorce.

They had barely talked since then. But Julie bar­reled back into Joe’s life the mo­ment he called from the am­bu­lance. She hunted down Bingo, who had been found in Joe’s truck. She helped find Lovely. She joined the ro­tat­ing cast of vis­i­tors to the hos­pi­tal room. And when Joe called and asked if he could use the arena on her side of the prop­erty, she agreed.

Joe spent the next sev­eral weeks try­ing to hand-walk Lovely, twice or even three times a day. His charred wrist made it dif­fi­cult. So did her ornery de­meanor. Lovely, who weighed al­most 1,200 pounds, reared and bucked as Joe, who weighs about 150, tried to keep her steady. When walk­ing wasn’t enough, he started jog­ging along­side her. Along with his prob­a­bly pre­ma­ture re­turn to the soc­cer field, the jog­ging helped Joe get back in shape. It also helped ex­haust his body to the point that he started sleep­ing right through the night­mares.

They went on like this through win­ter, work­ing their way from walk­ing to jog­ging, jog­ging to gal­lop­ing, gal­lop­ing to sprint­ing. In April, about four months af­ter the fire, word came that the San Luis Rey was ready to re­open. Joe pulled his trailer onto the grounds and walked Lovely to­ward the new barns, which had rub­ber floors and would even­tu­ally be equipped with fire sprin­klers. Joe knew there wasn’t much they could do about fu­ture fires. He knew the re­gion’s de­vel­op­ment, its ex­treme weather and those tow­ers of dry al­falfa con­spired to make ru­ral San Diego horse farms about as vul­ner­a­ble as any­where. But he also knew that sur­viv­ing wild­fires was all about cre­at­ing “de­fen­si­ble spa­ces.” Sprin­klers would def­i­nitely help.

Af­ter set­tling in, Joe took Lovely on their old morn­ing walk, near their old barns, which seemed to make her a lit­tle skit­tish. But when he turned her loose on the track, she cruised.

Back on track

On the day of the race, Lovely was her usual self: calm in the sad­dling pad­dock, a lit­tle cranky when the jockey mounted her and all busi­ness as she trot­ted onto the track.

It was late Septem­ber, more than 10 months af­ter the fire. Joe had hoped to race her ear­lier, but a nag­ging foot in­jury kept set­ting her back. He also wor­ried about whether the smoke had done dam­age to her lungs. But by fall, he was con­fi­dent she could race again. He found her a slot at Los Alami­tos, the palm-stud­ded race­track in the end­less sub­urbs south of Los An­ge­les.

Joe found his way to his spot near the fin­ish line. Down the track, a crowd of rel­a­tives and friends, who had been closely fol­low­ing the duo’s re­cov­ery, swarmed the rail. They watched as Lovely set­tled into the start­ing gate, re­as­sured by the steady hands of a Ken­tucky Derby-win­ning jockey named Ste­wart El­liott, whom Joe had sought out for Lovely’s first race back.

The gates flew. Lovely got trapped on the inside, a no­to­ri­ously slow lane at Los Alami­tos. The out­side horses breezed past her, and by the fi­nal turn she was sixth, sev­eral lengths be­hind the leader. As they moved into the fi­nal stretch, Joe couldn’t help but be­gin telling him­self that it was an ac­com­plish­ment just to be rac­ing again.

That’s when it hap­pened. El­liott started work­ing Lovely hard, as if he re­al­ized she was ready to race. And there she went, cruis­ing into fifth, then fourth, and then, just be­fore the fin­ish line, into the money.

In time, Joe would cher­ish the fact that Lovely fin­ished third in her first race back. She would do the same in her sec­ond race back, too. Later, as the first an­niver­sary of the fire ap­proached, he made plans to en­ter Lovely in even more com­pet­i­tive races, and he started imag­in­ing her fu­ture as a brood­mare.

But right then, as the an­nouncer called her name, Joe just stepped onto the track and found his filly. Af­ter most races, it’s the groom who es­corts a horse back to her stall to re­cover. That day, though, Joe took Lovely by the hal­ter and walked her home him­self.

SANDY HUFFAKER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

SANDY HUFFAKER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PAUL SISSON/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRI­BUNE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TOP: Joe Her­rick stands with Lovely Fin­ish at her Del Mar sta­ble Nov. 25, nearly a year af­ter the Lilac Fire. The filly ap­par­ently was trans­ported there by a Good Sa­mar­i­tan af­ter be­ing res­cued from the blaze at the San Luis Rey Train­ing Cen­ter, where the other six horses Her­rick trained were killed. LEFT: Horses gal­lop away from the fire at the train­ing cen­ter Dec. 7. Many turned back for their barns, which nor­mally rep­re­sented se­cu­rity.

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