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San Luis Rey Training Center down but not out after Lilac Fire


Last updated 12/22/2017 at Noon

Barn stalls are left in charred ruins one week after the Dec. 7 Lilac Fire blazed through the San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall. Shane Gibson photo

The day after the Dec. 7 Lilac Fire destroyed eight of its barns, killed dozens of its equine athletes and injured its horsemen and staff both physically and mentally, the San Luis Rey Training Center welcomed some important guests that brought good news.

Officers of The Stronach Group, the Canadian-based company that owns Santa Anita and several other racetracks throughout the U.S. as well as the San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall, assured San Luis Rey general manager Kevin Habell and his team that they would be getting the funds needed to rebuild all structures and equipment lost in the wind-crazed fire.

link The delegation from The Stronach Group included president Mike Rogers, who arrived from Canada; Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer; and Keith Brackpool, chairman of the company’s West Coast operations.

“It was such a good thing to see them right away,” said Habell. “They came and right away said, ‘rebuild.’ That was such a good motivation when everyone saw them.”

The immediate green light to move forward has helped San Luis Rey staff somewhat deal with the frightening and horrifying memories that come with a fire that resulted in 46 of the training center’s thoroughbreds being killed and friends being injured.

“It was the worst day of my life,” said Kevin Morin, a member of the security staff at San Luis Rey. “I witnessed things nobody should ever have to see.”

Habell said he advised his crew, “If you need time off, take it.”

“They said no; that they’d rather help with the rebuilding,” said Habell. “It helps them mentally.”

The American Red Cross had a steady presence at San Luis Rey following the fire, providing both medical and mental health services. Habell said medical professionals in the horse racing community have volunteered to provide services in the future.

“Whatever the guys needed, they got (from the Red Cross),” said Habell. “We also have people coming up and volunteering their services for long-term. We’re setting that up for the future. Counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists, they’re volunteering their time at no charge going forward. They want to make sure there is ongoing counseling.”

Help for the horses and horsemen at San Luis Rey came instantly as members of the equine community rushed to the center with horse vans and transported them to safety. Although most of the horses were taken to Del Mar racetrack, neighboring Trifecta Equine Athletic Center in Bonsall also proved invaluable in providing care and housing.

“The people that showed up here, in the hundreds, to save these horses, it was awesome,” said Morin. “They said there was a 3-mile long line on Old 395 to get in here with trailers. They came from everywhere and God bless them.”

Morin is part owner of a 3-year-old filly who escaped from one of the blazing barns. Since Morin was assisting with putting out spot fires and aiding in the evacuation of horses, he had no idea if his filly had survived. When he went to Del Mar and spotted his filly, he admits to shedding some tears.

“She came out of it with one little scratch on her,” said Morin. “I’ll never know the angel that scooped her up and cared for her. Bless their heart.”

Morin, when asked the name of his filly, replied, “She’sluckythatway, and she was.”

Teresa Jennings, the office manager at San Luis Rey, relayed that her 5-year-old gelding Shortstormcoming wasn’t as lucky. He perished in Barn N.

“By the time I came down here Shorty’s barn was already on fire and we couldn’t get down there,” said Jennings, who lives less than a mile from the training center. When a neighbor told Jennings that her chicken coop and laundry room were on fire, Jennings said she split time between the center and her house, where she had two horses and a mini burro. “Those got evacuated,” said Jennings. “A friend came and picked them up.”

While 46 San Luis Rey horses died, it’s important to note that more than 400 survived thanks to heroic efforts from those that make up the close-knit San Luis Rey community. From grooms and trainers to security and maintenance personnel, everyone did what they could.

“I can’t commend my crew enough for standing up and fighting it,” said Habell. “They’re heroes. Everything from fighting the fire to loading the horses and saving horses, they just jumped in. Everyone stepped up unbelievably. It could have been a lot worse.”

Veteran trainer Manny Calvario made the save of the day when he pulled trainer Martine Bellocq out of a burning stall. Bellocq, trying to rescue her horses, suffered second- and third-degree burns over 50 percent of her body and is recovering at UC San Diego Medical Center.

Trainer Joe Herrick was also hospitalized with severe burns, and outrider Les Baker sustained several broken ribs and facial lacerations when he was trampled by fleeing horses.

The support for workers who lost everything they had – the stricken barns included grooms’ quarters – as well as for trainers who lost all their tack and supplies came fast and furious. A GoFundMe page ( launched by Santa Anita and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has collected more $650,000.

The money raised from the GoFundMe page is being funneled through the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation, according to Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle, who was at Del Mar Dec. 15, handing out checks from the fund.

“We gave away over $250,000 on Friday (Dec. 15) to affected horsemen and their help,” said Hammerle. “That was where the money was earmarked to go. The goal of this is to try and get people back on their feet and to get a little bit of normalcy back in their lives.

“I’m on a small committee that is helping to decide where the money goes and that was the first chunk of that fund,” continued Hammerle. “The goal was to get it out there fast and it was an amazing turnaround.”

Donations of clothes, shoes, blankets, mattresses and toiletries, as well as appliances like microwaves and toasters, flooded into Del Mar, where the San Luis Rey stable workers were relocated along with their horses. In Bonsall, Udder Feed Store collected donations and transported them to Del Mar.

“It’s just overwhelming how great that part is,” said Habell of the donations.

Members of the San Luis Rey staff, including starting gate crew members and clockers, are now wearing different hats to help get the training center back in operation as soon as possible.

“We’re moving forward right now,” said Habell. “Everyone is working on things to help us clean up. The barns that survived (A through F), we’re already pressure-washing and cleaning them and painting them. There was some roof damage from the wind, but they were spared from the fire. We’re trying to turn things around as fast as possible and get to normal as fast as possible on those barns.”

Habell said the six remaining barns translate to 200 stalls. He added he is already considering getting temporary barns that could house 300 to 350 horses and be used while the destroyed barns are being rebuilt.

Horseshoe prints cover an area of the southeast portion of the San Luis Rey Training Center property where horses are normally not allowed. San Luis Rey Training Center staff, grooms and trainers all attempted to release horses from their stalls, so they could flee from fire at the facility. Shane Gibson photo

“I know it’s going to be anywhere from $260,000 to $350,000 to replace each barn,” said Habell, who was getting quotes for the removal and clean up of the burnt barns.

Habell said the goal is to have horses back training on San Luis Rey’s expansive one-mile dirt oval in early January. It’s a target Habell’s team members will work diligently to hit while trying to cope with their losses.

“We all think of this place as our place,” said Habell. “I get teary-eyed four times a day. We all have our little cries together. It’s very sad but we’re moving forward. It could have been a lot worse.”

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