A horse is unloaded from a trailer after being evacuated from San Luis Rey Downs to Del Mar

A horse is unloaded from a trailer after being evacuated from San Luis Rey Downs to Del Mar

Cecilia Gustavsson

Disaster Responders to Receive Special Eclipse Award

Will be awarded to responders who assisted at Camarero, San Luis Rey.

In recognition of countless acts of heroism, bravery, and benevolence in the face of tragedy, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters announced Jan. 12 that a Special Eclipse Award will be awarded to all responders who assisted in mitigating the year's worst racehorse-related disasters—the hurricane that left more than 800 Thoroughbreds stranded with limited food and water at Puerto Rico's Hipódromo Camarero in September, and the wildfire that took the lives of 46 Thoroughbreds at Southern California's San Luis Rey training center in December.

The Special Award honors extraordinary service, individual achievements in, or contributions to the sport of Thoroughbred racing.

Representatives of the Camarero and San Luis Rey relief efforts will be on hand to accept the Special Award at the 47th annual Eclipse Awards dinner and ceremony Jan. 25, in the Sport of Kings Theatre at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. 

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico Sept. 20—a Wednesday—as a Category 4 storm with wind gusts up to 118 miles per hour. All 3.4 million residents lost power and nearly all communications networks were knocked out of service. Storm surge and flash flooding left entire towns trapped until military relief could reach them as much as 24 hours later. Scores of people were killed in the storm and hundreds more are believed to have died struggling in the months after. 

Maria laid waste to the island's only sanctioned racetrack, Hipódromo Camarero, formerly known as El Comandante, where Bold Forbes debuted in 1975 before winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown the following season. It's also the location where Puerto Rican natives Angel Cordero Jr. and John Velazquez rode early in their Hall of Fame careers. The grandstand was destroyed, with the winner's circle and clubhouse "in ruins," track administrator Jose A. Maymó Azize said. 

Azize estimated that 90% of the racehorse pens lost their roofs. There were 800 registered Thoroughbreds on the track grounds—more than half of which were bred in the mainland U.S.—with limited access to food or clean water. And with so much human suffering on the island, many of the horses no longer had caretakers. Miraculously no horses died during the storm, but for many the hardest days were still to come.

In stepped Kelley Stobie and Shelley Blodgett of Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare, the nonprofit organization with more than a decade of experience transitioning hundreds of racehorses from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for post-racing lives, both on the islands and back on the U.S. mainland. 

"I got to the racetrack on the Friday after the storm and I was completely shocked at the devastation," said Stobie, an equine therapist who works at Camarero and lives on the island. "I had no idea those barns were going to collapse the way they did. I went barn to barn and broke locks, broke chains, climbed over fences. Some horses we couldn't get to, so all I could do was climb over the rubble to give them water. A lot of them had gone two days without water. That day I must have given water to a hundred horses by myself."

Stobie recruited help from the few grooms she could find that were still there tending to their horses.

"A lot of people couldn't get to the track because they were trapped in their homes," she said. "My husband owns a heavy equipment company so we were able to move fallen trees and everything so we could get to the main highway."

By Monday, five days since Maria made landfall, Stobie was still clearing access to horses that hadn't had any water. 

"We were just trying to keep the horses hydrated," she said. "People didn't realize how bad it was going to be. Nobody had stored anything and those that did, had their roofs ripped off. There was no hay to be found so they would just give horses 10 pounds of grain with no water."

Stobie was able to call her CTA co-founder Blodgett, a racing fan and recently retired clinical psychologist in Wellington, Fla., who had helped re-home several horses from Puerto Rico to the U.S.

"I just started messaging various industry organizations," Blodgett said. "I wrote to Sue Finley (of Thoroughbred Daily News) and sent her pictures. When she published that letter it immediately got the attention of the industry, and then the response came."

Among those that responded to Blodgett's plea were American Association of Equine Practitioners, Bonnie Heath Farm, Brook Ledge Horse Transportation, Cargill Animal Nutrition, MWI Animal Health, Purina Animal Nutrition, Ranch Aid, TFB Equine, Texas Equine Veterinary Association, The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, Thoroughbred Charities of America, and U.S. Equestrian Federation. Terry Finley and Vincent Viola, partners in Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner Always Dreaming, helped cut through bureaucratic red tape for the flights to be cleared.

Within two weeks a charter jet arrived in Puerto Rico with 20 tons of alfalfa, veterinary supplies, including fluids and penicillin, and two satellite phones. It was the first of three planeloads that would come bearing donations from individuals and industry organizations. 

"We would have lost a lot more horses to starvation if we hadn't gotten the help that we did," Blodgett said. "We got this plane in and it took Erin Crady of TCA and others moving heaven and earth to make it happen. It is a mini-miracle that this plane actually got in and it is a credit to people in this industry who have a lot of influence."

To date, 98 horses from the Camarero backside have been euthanized, nearly all from colic or laminitis. Track veterinarian Dr. Ricardo Loinaz has worked nonstop at the on-site equine hospital caring for those with serious injuries or requiring antibiotics. While nutritional needs have been addressed, most of the damaged barns remain unrepaired.  

"Some trainers and owners have gone and made repairs, but others don't have the means," Blodgett said. "They're dealing with their own devastation from the hurricane and disruption to their finances. Not having good shelter for these horses is making it so much worse."

Said Stobie: "It was mostly colic to start, and then about a month after the storm they were foundering from standing in water and on cement for so long. That was when we had no choice but to start euthanizing horses. Not a lot of them have been euthanized for other ailments or fractures or anything. 

"The euthanasia rate right now is the highest it's been. We're getting more horses than ever with laminitis now that the races are back up and running. I'm still begging the racetrack to rebuild the roofs."

Stobie and Blodgett will attend the Eclipse Awards ceremony to accept the Special Eclipse Award on behalf of countless individuals that participated in the relief effort. 

It started as a minor brush fire first spotted in the late morning of Dec. 7 in northwest San Diego County. Fanned by unusually strong Santa Ana winds, with gusts of more than 60 miles per hour, within 30 minutes the fire consumed 50 acres. Within the next hour it spread to 500 acres. By early afternoon, the blaze expanded westward to the San Luis Rey training center, where about 450 Thoroughbred racehorses were stabled.

As the fire encroached, horsemen did what they could to protect their barns, dousing roofs with water from hoses. Training center staff smothered flames with dirt as spot fires popped up.

Vans were summoned for emergency evacuation, but most found they could no longer access the training center, or could not make it in time. The 2017 California wildfire season had been the worst on record, including five of the 20 most destructive fires in the state's history, and drought conditions left much of the land unusually prone to ignition. Between the wind and the dry fuels, the fire was gaining in size and strength by the minute.

The trainers, assistant trainers, foremen, and grooms on the scene faced agonizing decisions as the fire moved across the property in a scattershot fashion, from hillside to barn roof, sometimes by way of blazing palm trees, depending on where the windswept sparks might take.

Should they leave the horses in their stalls a little longer, in case help arrives, or should they let them free to fend for themselves, despite the many risks of allowing animals that have been contained and supervised their entire lives to run wild? And how long should the humans even stay to care for these horses when their way out could be cut off?

Most of the horsemen stayed, risking their own well-being in hopes of saving their charges. When no other options were left, stall doors were opened and horses were pulled out, let loose to find their own way on the training track, the infield, or the burning barn area. 

Leo Tapia, a groom for trainer Peter Miller, broadcast live video on Facebook that showed the horror as it unfolded. Tapia ran into one of his barns, unlatching stall guards and urging horses to flee, even as smoke consumed the shedrow and the 23-year-old Mexican choked for air.

"I was a little bit afraid, but I didn't let myself think about it," Tapia told Chelsea Hackbarth of Paulick Report. "I just felt like my heart wanted to get out of my chest. But I couldn't leave without helping my horses and those of my friends."

Outside the barn, Tapia continued to document the scene as scores of frightened, loose horses ran in search of safety. The harrowing 10-minute video has more than 256,000 shares and 15 million views.

"I wanted people to realize the magnitude of the tragedy," Tapia said.

As reported by Jeremy Balan of BloodHorse this week, Martine Bellocq raced into her burning barn attempting to save an unraced 2-year-old, Wild Bill Hickory. The trainer suffered third-degree burns over 60% of her body and was unable to rescue the colt.

Fellow trainer Manuel Calvario, stabled in the same barn with Bellocq, saw his neighbor engulfed in flames and snuffed them out with a blanket, saving her life. Pierre Bellocq Jr., who had been loading another of their horses onto a van, returned to find his wife slumped on the ground, still injured and crying for Wild Bill Hickory. Martine was airlifted to UC San Diego Medical Center, Hillcrest, and placed in a medically induced coma. She remains under significant sedation and can't speak.

"As soon as they finish the skin grafts and all that, she may pick up some momentum," Pierre told Balan. "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."

Two additional horsemen suffered serious injuries—trainer Joe Herrick sustained second- and third-degree burns on his face, neck, arms, and hands while pulling 2-year-old filly Lovely Finish from his burning barn, and outrider Les Baker broke nine ribs and suffered facial lacerations when trampled by a fleeing herd.

Forty-six horses died from the fire, according to the California Horse Racing Board. Nine of San Luis Rey's 15 barns were destroyed.

A few days later, San Luis Rey general manager Kevin Habell gave Daily Racing Form executive columnist Jay Hovdey a tour of the aftermath, pointing out the skeletal remains of the barn of Scott Hansen, who lost 15 horses, as well as those of Herrick, Miller, and Cliff Sise, who each lost five.

"We collected eight dead out on the track or the infield, from shock, or smoke inhalation, or heart failure," Habell told Hovdey. "The rest my men removed from the barns. I think I'll want to get them some counseling."

About 250 horses from San Luis Rey were evacuated to Del Mar, which provided sanctuary to about 800 horses total. Others from San Luis Rey were either walked or vanned to surrounding farms, many by locals who rushed to the scene to lend a hand.

Early the next morning, after the 4,100-acre fire was controlled and survivors had been relocated, hundreds of volunteers arrived at Del Mar at 2 a.m. to fill water buckets and watch for colic. Many came bearing supplies for horses and barn workers.

A GoFundMe site to raise money for the horsemen most severely impacted raised more than $650,000, led by $50,000 from Spendthrift Farm of Southern California racing fixture B. Wayne Hughes (who also sent veterinary supplies and volunteers on a private plane from Kentucky) and five-digit donations from several prominent horsemen and industry groups.

As San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Bryce Miller put it, after surveying a room packed wall to wall with donated supplies from around the globe: "A fire led to a heartwarming flood."