By Dennis W. Miller
As with most tragedies there are examples of courage that flash to the surface in split seconds when all seems lost, when circumstances overwhelm, when seemingly ordinary people become super human and accomplish the impossible.
Some are born heroes; some are born on the spot. No amount of training or preparation can predict who will emerge as a hero until the time comes. Captain Sullenberger was a hero who was well trained and experienced. When thrown in the crucible he did the right thing. The proper course of action is not always apparent in an emergency. Decision-making is split second and miscalculations unforgiving.
There is no doubt the conflagration that occurred at San Luis Rey Downs on Dec. 7 was such an occasion. A time when ordinary souls, forged by fire, accomplished feats beyond mortal expectations.
While I have no doubt that there were numerous feats of selfless heroism that occurred as the Armageddon of San Luis Rey unfolded, I am compelled to note one such story of which I have personal knowledge.
The barn of Edward Freeman was one of the first to be completely destroyed by fire. Freeman was away on a family visit to his native England. He departed comfortable in the knowledge his barn was in the good care of barn manager and exercise rider Casandra Branick.
Like most mornings Branick woke at 4 a.m. and arrived at the Freeman barn a short time later to oversee a crew of eight grooms as they fed, watered, trained and exercised 17 thoroughbred racehorses. Another was at an equine clinic.
What began as a normal day soon turned horrible beyond imagination. Shortly after 11 a.m., Branick, noticed telltale signs of fire on the hilltops to the east. Acting quickly, she alerted her crew and began tranquilizing her charges in anticipation of an evacuation. She ordered bales of hay be watered down and began loading feed and water tubs on the van. Contacting Freeman in England, she recommended evacuating the horses. Freeman concurred and advised his owners of the situation and vowed to take responsibility for the potentially hazardous decision.
With a green light from her boss, Branick began loading the her charges. She sent the first load to the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club before anyone there knew of the emergency. She even had the foresight to send ulcer medication in case it was needed.
This was only the beginning of a long day that would not end for another 30 hours. As the day progressed, Branick was able to load her remaining horses on various vans throughout the afternoon. Some of these animals were, by nature, high strung and difficult to deal with. The fact that she was able to coerce them onto vans that they were clearly resistant to entering is amazing enough! That this was accomplished without benefit of lip-chains or lead ropes and in one case with only a leather belt is simply miraculous.
It should be noted at this point that three of Freeman’s grooms, not unlike Branick, battled the entire day from start to finish without concern for their personal safety or belongings. These brave horsemen passed the point where reason ends and courage begins many long hours before. They are Silvano Vaca, Carlos Osuna and Martin Espinosa. People such as these restore one’s faith in humankind. They were drawn by a calling stronger than the urge for self-preservation. Their duty was to the horses they loved and cared for.
With her horses dispersed to three locations, Branick turned to save her goat and another from a neighboring barn. As she exited the track the police laughed at the two frightened animals squealing in the back seat.
With the goats delivered to safety she attempted to return to the track but was blocked by law enforcement. Noticing a veterinarian on foot attempting gain access to the track, this dynamo from New Jersey once again took charge. Instructing the vet to get in, she drove her car up on the median and managed to enter the facility where numerous injured horses were then humanely euthanized.
Returning to the horror of stampeding horses, some on fire, Branick proceeded to render help to others. She helped load horses with the aid of fallen palm fronds. The barn directly behind her lost at least three horses, and a trainer who suffered severe burns trying to save them was evacuated to a hospital, where she remains in a medically induced coma.
My second hand telling of these feats no doubt leaves much untold. But what I do know is that the two horses I own in partnership with Edward Freeman are alive and well. As day turned to night Branick never stopped. Speaking to her through the night and into the next morning, I know she attempted to provide clothing and comfort to her grooms…all of whom lost every earthly possession to the fire. They were without money, documents and clothing. She, herself was without money or medication.
As she attempted to leave the area later that night, she was met with roadblocks. Eventually, she was able to get to her house and for the first time get something to drink. Despite my admonishment to go to bed, she once again set out to inventory her horses at various locations in the area.
I have no doubt my narrative does little justice to the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would have said, but I know enough! As a veteran and retired airline pilot, if I had to choose someone to go battle with it would be Casandra Branick, a 110-pound package of dynamite who looks at fear with contempt and the impossible as just a momentary speed bump.
Dennis W. Miller is a thoroughbred horse owner who lives in Newport Beach and La Quinta.
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