When the Dec. 7 fire broke out that would devastate San Luis Rey Downs near Bonsall, Calif., veterinarians Nick Huggons and Korin Potenza faced a dilemma. They had to evacuate their own San Luis Rey Equine Hospital, but they also realized the danger to the hundreds of horses at San Luis Rey Downs, which sits kitty-corner to Trifecta Equine Athletic Center, a rehabilitation center they operate.
Fortunately for many of the San Luis Rey equine victims, Huggons, Potenza, and their staff jumped in to lead racehorses that heroic grooms had freed from the burning barns to the relative safety of Trifecta. They ended up with more than 100 evacuated horses on their property and immediately began triaging injuries, which surely saved lives.
With halters and shanks in short supply, the rescuers used whatever they had available, including belts, shirts, baling wire, and cotton leg wraps. The frightened horses instinctively seemed to realize that these people were there to help.
"They were so docile and easy to lead across the street," Potenza said.
"They were happy to follow somebody and get out of the situation," Huggons added.
When the day began, the two veterinarians, who are married to each other and have owned the San Luis Rey Equine Hospital since 2013, had no idea what they would be facing by nightfall.
"It went from a 10-acre fire to thousands of acres within a matter of a couple of hours," Huggons said. "The winds and the hot embers were just flash-igniting structures. It was incredible the way things went up."
Huggons and Potenza put two associate veterinarians and two interns in charge of handling evacuation of the hospital and went to Trifecta to see how they could help.
"The flames were close, and we could see the fire lines," said Huggons. "But the wind was blowing away from Trifecta."
Ashley Harlin and Annabelle Weller-Poley, who work at Trifecta, were among those immediately joining in the rescue efforts.
"Everybody who could run across the street was helping, including gardeners and the guy who waters and harrows our racetrack," said Potenza. "They all risked their lives—it was amazing."
Huggons said that a young military man named Daniel was in the area checking on a relative's house.
"He saw the effort and joined in despite not having a lot of horse experience," said Huggons.
"He climbed the hill with us and brought horses down two at a time," said Potenza.
Stacy Locke, a former trainer who now has a horse-hauling business, happened to be at Trifecta with a four-horse trailer when the fire broke out. She hauled as many horses as she could across the street.
"Stacy was instrumental in helping save those horses," said Huggons. "We had two other trailers at Trifecta, and we were also hauling horses with those."
As the horses arrived at the Trifecta property, Huggons and Potenza sorted colts, fillies, and geldings into separate pastures. They put the seriously injured into stalls and began treating the worst cases.
"We had a lot of bandage supplies, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories here because of our rehabs," Potenza explained. "We had just gotten a load of hay and shavings. We were really fortunate in that regard."
Most of the injuries were lacerations and burns, though the rescuers also dealt with broken withers and severe cases of tying up.
"The staff was immediately bandaging and dressing wounds, feeding the ones in the pastures," said Potenza. "We got the really critical ones dealt with that night, and the ones that just had small punctures the following morning."
Complicating the efforts, they lost power during the fire and didn't get it back until 9 p.m. Dec. 10. Halfway through the evacuation efforts, night fell.
"We ran the treatment room off of generators," said Huggons.
"We also got good at suturing with headlamps in the dark," added Potenza.
The next day, identification efforts began. Horses that had already raced had lip tattoos, but the rescued included unraced 2-year-olds and yearlings.
"A lot of them we recognized because we work with those trainers every day over at the hospital," said Potenza.
By Dec. 10 they had all of the horses identified, some via microchips and the final filly through her unique farrier work.
Volunteers began bringing supplies to Trifecta the day after the fire. Huggons and Potenza coordinated with the herculean efforts underway at Del Mar to reunite horses with their trainers.
As of Dec. 11, Trifecta was down to about 30 of the rescued horses. Some of the injured ones are remaining there for the time being or will go to the San Luis Rey Equine Hospital for treatment in the hyperbaric chamber.
"It's supposed to be phenomenal for burns," Potenza said of the hyperbaric chamber. "Anyone out there who has badly burned horses or smoke inhalation or bad respiratory issues is welcome to call us and we can get the horses in there."
The Trifecta property has housed Thoroughbreds through its many iterations, including as Brookside West when owned by the late Allen Paulson. Ernest Moody, who co-owned multi-millionaire Game On Dude, and Mercedes Vila currently own the property and lease it to Huggons and Potenza.
"They were out of town," said Potenza, "and I told them, 'Just so you know, we are inundating your property with horses.' They were willing to support in any way they could. I can't thank them enough."
The California racing industry could say the same about Huggons, Potenza, and the rest of the Trifecta team.