It has been hard to turn on your television this week without seeing graphic images of the wildfires that are impacting Southern California, but the latest addition to that long list of areas that are being reduced to ashes is one that will be familiar to many horse lovers. San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall, Calif., hosts some of the finest Thoroughbred race horses and trainers in the country and offers 365 days of training a year thanks to the normally perfect climate.
But a few days ago, the idyllic trails and tracks of San Luis Rey were consumed by a fast moving wildfire. The Lilac fire began on Thursday, Dec. 7, and quickly spread to upwards of 4,000 acres, destroying more than 100 structures and damaging more. The fires consumed eight barns at the 500-stall San Luis Rey complex before grooms and trainers had time to evacuate the horses stabled there.
The California Horse Racing Board has confirmed that at least 46 Thoroughbreds died. In most cases the horses were victims of asphyxiation when the smoke from fires surrounding the complex became too thick to breathe. Also amongst those harmed by the fires was trainer Martine Bellocq, who had six horses stabled at the training center and suffered second- and third-degree burns trying to rescue her horses. She awoke from a medically induced coma on Dec. 9 at the nearby UC San Diego Medical Center.
Footage live streamed on Facebook by Leo Tapia, a groom at the facility, showed the chaos that ensued as the crisis rapidly spiraled into a tragedy.
At first, trainers tried to contain the horses by turning them loose in the infield, which is surrounded with fencing, but as the flames grew stronger the horses were simply released from their stalls to fend for themselves. Many were reluctant to exit given the fire and chaos surrounding them. Others circled their barns in panic, nearly trampling the grooms who were rushing to release the horses still in their stalls. In some surrounding ranches, horses were released with owners’ names and phone numbers written on their hooves in order to find them after the blaze ended.
Locals rallied, and numerous trailers arrived at San Luis Rey and other facilities to load up horses without knowing to whom they belonged. Many horses were evacuated to nearby Del Mar Racetrack and neighboring farms. However, some would-be-rescuers were foiled by road closures and flames. “It’s frustrating,” said one man I spoke to who had been hoping to help evacuate animals in his large pickup truck. “You just want to do something to help, and taking some of these poor animals to the rescue center, or trying to, feels much better than sitting at home watching those awful TV images.”
After the fire had passed through, grooms and trainers returned and rounded up the horses they could find. Some of the released horses made it to the hills around Bonsall’s horse country and have yet to be caught. This weekend, Sovereign Award-winning Conquest Typhoon was found and is being treated for burns and smoke inhalation.
But the CHRB confirmed there are an unknown number of horses still yet to be accounted for in the rugged terrain surrounding Bonsall, and it may be several days before they can confirm the final toll of the fire.
More than 800 horses from San Luis Rey and other facilities in the impacted area are now being held at Del Mar Racetrack, where there is an urgent need for alfalfa and timothy hay, shavings, double-ended snaps for hanging buckets, and volunteers to help with cleaning stalls and walking horses. Houston furniture magnate Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale has provided dozens of mattresses for trainers and grooms to stay at the racetrack, and Costco has donated hundreds of pounds of apples and carrots.
For those who are too far away but would like to help, a Gofundme page has been set up by an employee of the facility and, as of Saturday night, it had already exceeded its $500,000 target. A no-guarantee season to California Chrome has been donated to the effort by Taylor Made Farm and the California Chrome Syndicate. Bidding begins on Thursday at the online auction. The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has also donated $10,000.
For more ways to help, see the list of organizations accepting donations that the American Association of Equine Practitioners compiled.
Some hunter/jumper horsemen are also looking to help the grooms of the horses at San Luis Rey, many of whom lived at the center and lost everything. Amateur rider Virginia Fout and Archie Cox and Jorge Hidalgo of Brookway Stables, who had their own close call with a fire, have started a Gofundme for the grooms and horsemen, seeking both money and donated items such as hygiene items, sleeping bags, pillows, bedding and clothing.