Martine Bellocq still has a long way to go.
The trainer who went into a burning barn Dec. 7 at San Luis Rey Training Center in an attempt to rescue a prized young colt has third-degree burns on 60% of her body, and although she has made some progress, the challenges ahead are substantial, according to her husband, Pierre Bellocq Jr.
"She's stable, but she has had some complications that usually show up after these kinds of burns," Pierre said of his wife, who was airlifted from San Luis Rey to UC San Diego Medical Center, Hillcrest in the moments after the fire. She's still at Hillcrest as of Jan. 10. "That has slowed her recovery considerably right now. We just have to be patient with it."
Pierre said Wednesday that while her medically induced coma ended relatively quickly after the fire, Martine is still under significant sedation, which doesn't allow her to talk. Pierre hopes as her medical procedures continue, the outlook for his wife will improve.
"As soon as they finish the skin grafts and all that, she may pick up some momentum," Pierre said. "The biggest struggle is, she's still not able to talk to us, and it's a little bit scary, because physically she looks pretty much like she did on day one after the fire. ... She's not conscious enough to speak and she's still on a respirator most of the time and there are tubes everywhere, but she can hear us. We're going to keep talking to her and encouraging her.
"Every day it keeps reminding you of what happened, and that's the hard part for me, anyway."
Pierre's recollections from that Dec. 7 afternoon are as just as vivid as if they occurred yesterday, and have the echoes of other accounts of the terror at San Luis Rey.
Martine and Pierre, who work together training horses under Martine's name, got separated for a while as small fires popped up around the training facility. Pierre was out helping the facility's staff and other trainers to try to put out spot fires on the hills surrounding San Luis Rey, while Martine stayed at the barn with their string of six horses. Martine was hosing down the barn, as well as the horses in the stalls, to try to keep everything as moist as possible.
"At one point it looked as though we were going to be OK," Pierre recalled. "Fire trucks arrived and they put out most of the surrounding fires. But when the palm trees ignited, I knew that would be a disaster. Within minutes, it was all over."
Pierre got back to the barn and quickly grabbed a horse to try to get it onto a trailer, so it could get out of the facility. What he returned to was beyond horrifying.
Martine had high hopes for Wild Bill Hickory, a 2-year-old Many Rivers colt she bred with Margaret Sherr. When the fire got into the barns, Wild Bill Hickory was trapped inside, so Martine went into the blaze to save the unraced chestnut.
"He wasn't a fashionably bred horse, but he was a gorgeous specimen—perfect conformation, such a nice individual," Pierre said.
But Martine's heroic efforts weren't enough to save the colt. Wild Bill Hickory died from the burns he sustained, and Martine was also severely burned. By the time Pierre got back to the barn he found Martine slumped on the ground and burned, but still crying out for her beloved colt.
If not for the actions taken by fellow trainer Manuel Calvario, it may have been worse for Martine. Calvario, who was the Bellocqs' neighbor in the barn at San Luis Rey, saw Martine engulfed in the fire and snuffed out the flames with a blanket.
"He probably saved her life," Pierre said.
With Martine still hospitalized, Pierre has to care for the four horses they still have. Much of his time is spent beside his wife, but during morning training hours, he tends to the quartet at Del Mar.
He has mixed feelings as to whether the slight escape helps him cope with what happened.
"Does it help? Yes and no," Pierre said. "To have some kind of routine in the morning—something else to do other than go back in my mind to the fire and the situation—it is good to have a little bit of a change of pace. It occupies your mind too for a few hours, and then it's back to dealing with Martine and the fire."
One of those four trained by the Bellocqs will make her first start since the San Luis Rey fire Jan. 11 at Santa Anita Park. Eye of the River will be the first starter in Martine's name since that terrible day in December.
The 4-year-old Many Rivers filly, also bred by Martine and Sherr, has had an uninspiring career at the races (she's yet to hit the board in six starts and will be offered for a $20,000 claiming tag in the one-mile dirt race), but will have a unique opportunity to transcend her résumé Thursday.
Maybe it'll all come together for Eye of the River this time and maybe it won't. Her path to the races in a month has included her home catching on fire and her running free for hours at San Luis Rey in the panic of the fire and its aftermath. She's come out of all that to train well at her new Del Mar base.
"I'm just continuing what we were doing (with her training)," Pierre said. "She's run a few times and has been a bit of a disappointment, but she's training well and has fully recovered from any smoke (inhalation) problems. And she survived being loose that fateful afternoon."
Eye of the River will likely have more fans than she's ever had in six previous starts when she gets out to the Santa Anita main track Thursday. Martine may not be talking, but if she can hear Pierre, a story of a 30-1 homebred victory sure would be nice to get in her daily briefing.