Thoroughbred horsemen have a special kind of dry, sometimes biting humor.
If there was any indication healing from the devastating fire at San Luis Rey Training Center Dec. 7 was beginning, it was the return of humor the morning of Dec. 10 at Del Mar, where the majority of evacuated horses and horsemen have been relocated.
With the Del Mar main track open for light training for the second day since the evacuation, the backside stand was a meeting point for some of the trainers on the grounds, as well as Southern California racetrack officials.
As the first of about 40-45 horses made it to the track to jog Sunday morning, trainer Gary Mandella—who didn't have horses at San Luis Rey, but traveled down to Del Mar to help trainer Michele Dollase—was in a conversation with Del Mar racing secretary David Jerkens.
"So when are you going to open for turf works?" Mandella prodded Jerkens, as they both overlooked the seaside racetrack, which currently has a scraped turf course nearly as brown as the dirt main track.
Not too long after, trainer Sal Gonzalez and Doug O'Neill's assistant, Leandro Mora, shared stories about their horrific experiences at San Luis Rey, but the humor consistently snuck in. The conversation shifted to the 2006 Gulf News Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), in which Gonzalez's Proud Tower Too defeated O'Neill's eventual champion sprinter Thor's Echo.
"Ah, he beat me right at the wire," Mora said as he gestured toward Gonzalez. "We were celebrating anyway—'Arriba Mexico!' Everybody thought I won."
"I was on the fourth floor and I almost fell off the thing from jumping," Gonzalez said, to Mora's delight. "I couldn't get in the elevator because it was so packed, but I got to the bottom first before the elevator running down the stairs."
Mora later joked that he asked O'Neill in recent weeks if he was sending him down to San Luis Rey to retire him.
The horses who went to the track Sunday came from the barns of O'Neill, Gonzalez, Adam Kitchingman, and Brian Kozak, and Gonzalez and Mora chirped at each exercise rider as they approached the gap to exit the track.
"Esta bien?" Mora asked repeatedly in Spanish.
The horses who went to the track came at a slow drip, simply because there are only so many licensed exercise riders on the grounds, so there was never more than four or five on the track. Mora sent most of the horses to the track—about 32—while the others injured or still recovering from the O'Neill San Luis Rey string were walked or cared for in their stalls.
Later in the morning, Jerkens and Santa Anita Park racing secretary Rick Hammerle called a meeting with horsemen and about 50 showed up.
A number of issues were discussed at the open-air meeting just outside Del Mar's barn area racing office.
A local doctor advised horsemen to monitor their barn workers for respiratory issues from smoke inhalation and headaches, which could be related to carbon monoxide exposure. Multiple trainers expressed a need for on-site medical care, for both physical and mental ailments, because backstretch workers are unlikely to leave the grounds to seek help.
Others expressed a need for tack. Several trainers and barn workers lost all or nearly all of their equipment in the fire. Trainer Cliff Sise said he can't send any of his horses to the track because he doesn't have saddles.
"All I really have are two shanks," Sise said.
The assembled group recommended—rather than having people donate tack directly that may not suit specific needs—to ask potential donors to contribute to the National Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association, which has been tasked with addressing tack needs for San Luis Rey horsemen. Eric Hamelback, the CEO of the National HBPA, said donations can be made to nationalhbpa.com, but to ensure donations get to the right fund, asked donors note to send the money to the "San Luis Rey tack fund."
Mora stepped forward midway through the meeting to voice a need for donated funds to be directed to the medical bills for trainers Martine Bellocq and Joe Herrick, who are still hospitalized and being treated for severe burns. Trainers are not covered under workers' compensation plans.
"There are two people who can't be here, so we have to speak for them," Mora said. "We have to help them."
Santa Anita's vice president of marketing, Nate Newby, reassured the horsemen that the more than $555,000 raised through online donations would be distributed entirely to help horsemen, backstretch workers, and horses.
"A lot of people have called us and asked, 'Where is this money going?'" Newby said. "People are worried about taking care of you guys and your staff—the ones that got hurt, that would be the top priority of that group—and the horses. That's where 100% of that money is going to go to.
"Obviously we have people in the hospital. That's a top priority. The grooms who lost everything—that's a top priority."
Also Sunday the California Horse Racing Board equine medical director Rick Arthur sent out an advisory to horsemen and veterinarians, advising them to monitor horses who were based at San Luis Rey for symptoms of respiratory inflammation from smoke inhalation.
"Trainers should use caution in returning horses to training that were exposed to smoke and are encouraged not to race horses exposed to smoke at San Luis Rey Downs until after Christmas at the earliest," the advisory said.
The advisory also said, if horses from San Luis Rey are entered for races before Dec. 26, they need to have a letter from an attending vet that certifies those horses are "unaffected by exposure to smoke" before they can race.
Pre-race examinations on San Luis Rey horses will also "include auscultation of the lungs and airways," according to the advisory. "If there is any suggestion of a respiratory condition, the horse will be declared unfit, placed on the veterinarian's list, and recommended the horse be scratched to the (board of stewards)," the advisory said. Horses stabled at Del Mar will also be restricted to jogging until at least Dec. 13.
As of Sunday afternoon, two racehorses and a small number of yearlings from San Luis Rey were still unaccounted for, although it is unclear if they might be included in the death toll of 46 declared by the CHRB. Many of the horses who died at San Luis Rey have not been identified for various reasons.
The two racehorses still unaccounted for—Packin Heat and Sir Charmalot—are both trained by Dan Dunham.
According to Jerkens the number of Thoroughbred racehorses stabled at Del Mar is steady at about 260, while horses of other breeds housed at the racetrack has increased to about 600 as of Sunday afternoon.