Courtesy San Luis Rey Downs

Horsemen Report Equine Deaths in San Luis Rey Fire

CHRB reports approximately 25 horses died in fire, at least one horseman injured.

According to reports from the state's racing regulator and horsemen on the ground, some two dozen horses have died, at least three horseman have been injured, and a number of barns have burned down after a brush fire consumed much of the San Luis Rey Training Center Dec. 7 in Bonsall, Calif.

An advisory issued by the California Horse Racing Board late Thursday night said "it is believed that approximately 25 horses perished in the fire."

Owner/trainer Joe Herrick has been hospitalized and is being treated for third-degree burns on his arm and shoulder, according to volunteer and former trainer Christina Gindt.

Trainer Martine Bellocq suffered second- and third-degree burns over 50% of her body while trying to rescue her horses during the fire at San Luis Rey. Bellocq's brother-in-law, Remi Bellocq, reported Dec. 8 that Martine was airlifted to UC San Diego Medical Center, where she is being treated for the burns. Doctors have put her in an induced coma as they treat her. Martine's husband and Remi's brother Pierre Bellocq Jr. also was hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

In the evacuation efforts at San Luis Rey, hundreds of horses were shipped to Del Mar, which issued a call for volunteers to care for the new arrivals.

According to horsemen on the ground, it's going to take time to account for all of the horses. Trainer Cliff Sise said horses at San Luis Rey were released from their stalls in order to avoid burning barns and were running free within the facility beginning Thursday afternoon.

"There are horses running all loose down here," Sise said. "People have lost horses. Barns have burned down. It just happened so fast that (we) had to do something."

Trainer Scott Hansen, who was saddling a horse for a race at Los Alamitos Race Course Thursday, said he knows some of his horses have died, but is still waiting for the final total. He estimates 8-10 have died.

"I wish we would have made that decision (to let horses out of their stalls) a little sooner, but to turn racehorses loose on a racetrack is not a safe thing," Hansen said. "It was a last resort. We heard vans were en route, but they didn't get there in time. It still hasn't sunk in."

Later in the day Sise provided further detail of what occurred at Hansen's barn.

"I heard them screaming, so I was able to get the webbing off of some, but the fire was so bad, I couldn't get to them all," Sise said.

Billy Koch of Little Red Feather Racing said Oddsmaker, an unraced 2-year-old, died in the fire.

"We lost our best 2-year-old," Koch said of the Phil D'Amato-trained Morning Line  colt. "I don't know what to do with myself. ... Total devastation."

Trainer Sam Scolamieri, who was on the ground at San Luis Rey, estimated half of the training center's barns have been burned down. Barns closer to the track and at a lower elevation were in the area where the fire was worst, while barns farther away from the track at a higher elevation were safer.

Doug O'Neill's assistant trainer, Leandro Mora, said the O’Neill string at San Luis Rey was largely OK, but gave a chilling account of the devastation.

"We’re very blessed that the majority of our horses are fine," Mora said. "We had to let some horses loose and were very lucky to put 10 on two different vans right away. Four are at Del Mar, four are (at other facilities), and some are roaming around. ... I saw two horses burn to death, running around on fire. They were all just running around so wild. We saw one break down, probably his hip, from running around, and we found out later they put him down.

“I never thought in my life that I’d see something like that."

Trainer Dan Dunham also said, during efforts to round up loose horses, some were found dead on the racetrack. He felt they likely died from smoke inhalation. He said he was unsure of the status of several of his horses.

"We don't know. Nobody knows where a lot of them ended up," Dunham said. "It's going to be a while before everyone finds their horses. There were 20 vans in there with us and we were just grabbing horses and putting them in.

"A lot of guys really risked their lives to get in there and get the horses loose, because those barns were going up."

Trainer Richard Baltas said his barn is intact and all of his horses are in their stalls. Baltas, whose main string is at Santa Anita Park, is attempting to get to San Luis Rey, but hadn't been able to as of Thursday afternoon.

"I'm trying (to get there), but my barn is standing and isn't burned," Baltas said. "But my assistant Ruben is on the roof with a hose to make sure everything around the barn is wet."

Trainer Adam Kitchingman said Thursday night that his horses and barn were safe. He also owns a home nearby the training center, and while his family was able to evacuate, he is unsure of the status of his house and is trying to get into the area.

"I don’t even know if my house is still standing, to be honest," Kitchingman said. "I'm sitting here (on the road) and there are 50-100 trucks just waiting to get in. Everyone is trying to get in there to help, but they’re only letting so many in at a time."

Trainer Richard Mandella got late notice Thursday night that his string at San Luis Rey was en route to Del Mar.

"I have horses with Michele Dollase there. I got good news about 30 minutes ago that they’re on the way to Del Mar," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "We’re very lucky, but feel for those who weren’t as fortunate.”

Del Mar chief operating officer Josh Rubinstein said the racetrack is open to any evacuated horses from San Luis Rey and will have no problems handling the full capacity of the training center, which has between 400-500 horses stabled there.

"We will take every single horse we can get," Rubenstein said. "We're open to anything with four legs."

Del Mar racing secretary David Jerkens said vehicles with horses and other animals have been consistently arriving at the racetrack. Feed has been provided by West Coast Feed, while volunteers and staff are working to get stalls ready and bedded for the incoming animals. As of 9:45 p.m PT, Jerkens said about 250 evacuated Thoroughbreds were on the Del Mar grounds.

Del Mar's George Bradvica, who is coordinating the volunteer effort there, said there will be a need for volunteers around 2 a.m. PT at Del Mar. At that time, they'll be assigning people to shedrows to watch horses for signs of colic, and to make sure they all have water.

Los Alamitos announced late Thursday night that its daytime Dec. 8 Thoroughbred racing card has been cancelled.