A massive volunteer effort was underway at the Del Mar Fairgrounds Friday to care for more than 800 horses and other large animals evacuated from the Lilac Fire in northern San Diego County.
The blaze, which broke out along Interstate 15 Thursday morning, tore through equine country in Bonsall and heavily damaged the San Luis Rey Training Center, where hundreds of horses, including thoroughbreds, are stabled.
While most were rescued from the advancing flames, roughly two dozen horses perished and a female trainer was in a medically induced coma after suffering serious burn injuries, according to multiple reports.
At Del Mar, broadcast video showed numerous volunteers responding to the need for help while others brought items needed to care for the animals. Among the donations, Costco provided hundreds of pounds of apples and carrots for the horses, according to Twitter.
Among the most needed items are muck buckets and pitch forks; shavings; feed, alfalfa, timothy and Bermuda; lead ropes and halters; blankets; and hooks and clips, according to the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. The club said air mattresses, clothes, toiletries, gloves, and blankets and bedding are needed for stable workers.
The horses are being kept in more than 40 barns in the back stretch of the racetrack, which can hold 1,600 of them.
The thoroughbred club, which operates the two annual horse racing seasons at Del Mar, joined Santa Anita Park and The Stronach Group, owners of San Luis Rey Downs, in establishing a GoFundMe account to aid those impacted by the fire at the training facility. It can be accessed at www.gofundme.com/thoroughbredcare.
In just six hours, the account had raised more than $292,000.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners also has a website for those wishing to donate toward relief, at www.foundation.aaep.org/disasterrelief.
The California Horse Racing Board said individuals at San Luis Rey risked their lives by trying to free the horses from their stalls and herd them into the safer infield area and training track. One worker who documented his efforts on Facebook of trying to release horses at the center as the fire neared was being lauded on social media as a hero.
Meanwhile, workers and volunteers at Del Mar and nearby ranches that had taken in horses from San Luis Rey were still working to identify some of the equines as some continued to search for missing horses and others made grim discoveries.
LRF Racing Club, which lost its 2-year-old colt Oddsmaker, announced on Twitter that one of its 4-year-old fillies, Riri, was still “unaccounted for,” then later posted the bleak news that they had “lost a 2nd horse.”
“She was tiny and mighty and we will miss her greatly,” LRF Racing Club wrote in the subsequent tweet, which thanked those who had “risked their lives for our horses.”
An emotional Billy Koch, LRF’s founder and managing partner, told TVG that he “can’t stop shaking” and feels “so bad for the horses,” but said what picks him up are the volunteers helping with the evacuated horses and “all the heroes who saved all the horses that they could.”
“There were horses that were burned,” he said of San Luis Rey, which he called “a disaster.”
“Both of our horses that died, they weren’t burned, they just were panicked and had run and run and run, and ultimately just the vets were there and they were trying to save our horses and just couldn’t. It’s just horrible,” Koch told TVG. “There’s a lot of people out there who are really sad and I’m one of ’em.”
Harris D. Auerbach initially tweeted that there was “still no word” on the whereabouts of the 4-year-old colt Puig after the blaze, then tweeted less than a half-hour later, “Unfortunately Puig did not make it and perished in the Lilac Fire at San Luis Rey Downs. RIP handsome boy. I am completely gutted.”
But Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners’ missing filly, Onassis, turned up at Del Mar on Thursday night.
Eclipse’s president, Aron Wellman, posted his own first-hand account online of finding the filly after he headed to Del Mar to help the equine evacuees and “resigned myself to refraining from the selfish mission of finding the one horse Eclipse had stabled at San Luis Rey to simply being a small part of contributing to the greater good.”
“I was overcome with emotion and wrapped my arms around her sweaty, hot, veiny and pulsating neck, and draped my body onto her shoulder,” Wellman wrote in the posting on Eclipse Thoroughbred’s website about finding her at Del Mar. “In an almost surreal turn of events, Onassis was there for me. She was reassuring me. She was comforting me. A 2-year-old filly who had been through hell and back and seen and lived pure horror was consoling me.”
He wrote that “there were tears of joy aplenty as trainers, owners and workers were reunited with their horses who could be identified … and, there were tears of sorrow as sad reports trickled in from 1st-hand sources.”
Also found was Rockingham Ranch’s Richard’s Boy, which placed second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Del Mar last month.
“I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude for all the volunteers who are at Del Mar right now and to the amazing @Twitter horse community who has helped get the message out. I’m so (grateful) for all of you,” Rockingham manager Brian Trump said on Twitter.
—City News Service