RURAL BONSALL, Calif. — There’s a dusty, quiet corner at the back of the 240-acre San Luis Rey Downs horse-training facility, far away from the handsome, newly constructed pavilions topped with roofs the color of freshly fallen snow.
The area, jarringly out of place from all the rebuild and rebirth, resembles a scene from battled-scarred Sarajevo — an eerie graveyard of twisted metal and jagged concrete footings once anchoring barns that wilted under flames exceeding 3,200 Fahrenheit.
The front of San Luis Rey Downs represents an eyes-forward, shoulders-squared future. The back represents lingering pain from Dec. 7, 2017, when the Lilac Fire swept through with unpredictable and merciless speed, claiming 46 horses and forever shattering a sense of safety.
The fire severely burned trainers Martine Bellocq and Joe Herrick, while the swirling chaos of loose, terrified horses injured outrider Les Baker in the choke of thick, gray smoke.
One year later, past and present wrestle for space — on the property and in mending minds.
“Everyone has emotional moments where they go to the ‘Back 40’ to get it together,” said general manager Kevin Habell, walking among the rubble. “You look at all of this, you can still see the flames.”
The year became a test, at moments sullen, at moments affirming, of the resilience of an entire industry. People from all corners — paycheck-to-paycheck backstretch workers, millionaire owners and complete strangers — discovered how much heart and sweat it would take to dust off ashes and sculpt brighter days.
Random boxes of canned beans arrived from England. Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello played a benefit concert. Some, like Bellocq and Herrick, began to heal. Others, like a veterinarian still awash with the horror of those grim hours, walked out of a recent conference on disaster preparedness at tracks because he was unprepared to relive it all.
Mario Estrella, a groom for trainer Daniel Dunham, sat outside of Barn F this week as he recalled the sting in his lungs and eyes during a frantic attempt to release horses.
“I saw a puff of smoke (on the horizon),” he said. “It happened so fast.”
Estrella remembers sitting nearly frozen on the couch that night in his Vista home, trying to come to terms with the blur of lives saved, lives lost and the unspeakable snapshots of it all bouncing wildly through his mind like a pinball.
Nothing remains more vivid, though, than the few words he finally summoned.
“I told my wife, ‘It’s a bad day, today.’
“A bad day.”
Crushed place rebuilds
San Luis Rey serves as the hub in Southern California’s horse-racing wheel, filling housing and training needs for tracks dotting the Pacific Coast, from Del Mar to Los Alamitos and Santa Anita.
The year-round training facility featuring a one-mile track, equine pool and stationary training gate has been the home to racing royalty. The range of blue bloods has included Kentucky Derby winners Ferdinand (1986), Sunday Silence (1989) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000). Two-time horse of the year Cigar polished skills there, along with 2002 horse of the year Azeri.
The drive to San Luis Rey snakes through picturesque vineyards and stately farms, meandering into the countryside under the careful watch of towering, bearded palm trees.
When the survivors of the Dec. 7 fire glance skyward a year later, they don’t see beauty. They see fuel.
Palm trees became the ignition switch for the fire’s cruel march across the facility as it leaped the fence line at Herrick’s Barn N. The embers rained down from the trees, latching onto anything they could find … straw, wood shavings, alfalfa. When Santa Ana winds whipped the scene, the mayhem accelerated at terrifying speed.
The flames sprinted up a slight hill to overrun Barn G, where Bellocq frantically doused herself with a hose to run back into a blast furnace of a stall that houses prized colt Wild Bill Hickory.
By then, the fire had grown so fierce that it melted porcelain in a nearby restroom and transformed coffee cans grooms had used to store spare change into makeshift boat anchors. The metal rims on Bellocq’s car were reduced to puddles.
In the middle of it all was an area Habell called “Palm Tree Alley,” stretching from Herrick’s barn toward trainer Peter Miller’s Barn H which sat nearest the facility entrance. At the heart of the catastrophe sat a nearly unlimited food source for the hungry flames.
Trainer Daniel Dunham shared Barn G with Bellocq. As he stood outside of his new barn this week, he recalled seeing the fire lapping at one end of the barn and he rushed to his office on the far end. In the few minutes he started to collect things, the wind-stoked flames already had traveled the 25-stall distance between ends.
Dunham scooped up his cat, Blackie, and surrendered everything else to the menacing heat.
“You can’t believe it’s happening,” he said. “You’ll never forget what it was like. There were horses everywhere. I saw a groom and just yelled, ‘Run!’”
Among the ashes are pictures of Dunham’s daughter, now 18, running around the track at “1 or 2.”
“She grew up in that barn,” he said.
Inspection reports from the North County Fire Protection District, requested by the Union-Tribune under the state’s open-records act, show San Luis Rey Downs was cited for violations, many minor, in four of the five years from 2012-16.
In 2012, however, the facility was instructed to “cut and remove all dead or dying portions of trees adjacent to or overhanging buildings.” Documents also noted a requirement to “repair or replace all holes in walls/ceilings (missing tiles) in fire-resistive construction.” Correspondence collected in those records indicated no sprinklers were installed because “none were required at the time of original building construction.”
All issues were quickly addressed, according to district documents. The most recent inspection before the fire, in 2017, indicated there were no violations on-site.
The fire spurred Habell and the Stronach Group, which owns San Luis Rey, to rethink every element of the operation related to safety — despite being up to code. They removed an estimated 350 palm trees, anything within 500 yards of the main facility, other than two non-shedding, decorative palms standing sentry over a colorful entrance sign.
Other potential trouble makers, like Chinese elms, were replaced with ice plants and other non-combustible ground cover.
Two pavilions, each 95 feet wide and the combined length of more than two football fields, uses a high-tech roofing material Habell says can self-extinguish a flame or ember, containing the danger within eight inches. Extinguishers were installed at every fifth stall and the facility added stationary hoses plotted on a grid to ensure coverage overlap. The piping for a new sprinkler system, if laid end to end, would stretch nearly two miles.
Employees downloaded an app on their phones called PulsePoint, which allows the user to plug in a place or region to receive instantaneous alerts about nearby emergency response calls.
Habell required every cart on the property to carry a hand-held extinguisher. As he drove one around the grounds on one of those carts to count hoses, he stopped at 12 before spying a 13th stationed at the main hydrant.
“Don’t tell me, unlucky No. 13,” he said, with a wry smile.
The estimated cost of the rebuild and safety enhancements at the facility with 480 permanent stalls, finished in a stunning four months, cost nearly $1 million.
“Real close to that,” Habell said.
Dr. Barrie Grant, an official California Horse Racing Board vet during Del Mar’s meets, once performed surgery on the compressed spinal cord of legendary runner Seattle Slew.
Grant lost his home just outside the fences of San Luis Rey. Volunteers from a local church helped sift through rubble, finding the wedding ring that belongs to his wife Vaughan.
The close proximity to the people and animals of San Luis Rey inspired him to help co-present a lecture on disaster preparedness at the recent American Association of Equine Practitioners in San Francisco. Though one listener who had been at San Luis Rey on Dec. 7 had to leave the discussion, Grant hopes the topic finds traction.
“Elementary schools do fire drills twice a year or whatever, so we need to be equipped and prepared,” he said.
Rebuilding material things and procedures continues to take noticeable shape. Rebuilding shattered lives, however, remains a heart-wrenching work in progress.
A ‘general’ amid the smoke
In the inky confusion, Pierre Bellocq struggled to comprehend what he saw. There, amid the mix of smoke and frightening glow of the stubborn flames, he saw a 95-pound woman sprinting in and out of visibility. She was a blur of activity, whipping horses into unfamiliar step-up trailers with palm fronds while barking instructions at other workers.
Casandra Branick, a 25-year-old barn manager and exercise rider, was in charge of trainer Ed Freeman’s operation while he was on a trip to England.
Bellocq was trying to comprehend how the fire had so quickly and savagely overrun his wife, Martine, who was burned over 60 percent of her body and was tenuously holding onto life. Now, he saw this small woman everywhere, darting courageously in and out of the smoke and flames time and again.
“She was like a general in the middle of a battlefield,” Bellocq said.
Branick wasn’t done.
When veterinarian Ron Magrini struggled to navigate police barricades to reach the facility and treat horses, he began running down a street with a box of euthanasia syringes and other emergency supplies. Branick, now in her vehicle, saw him.
“I yelled, ‘Doctor Ron, get in the car!’” she said. “There were horses running around with three legs, it was that bad. I floored it and went through the barricade at 50 mph. I’m from Jersey, you know?”
The unrelenting Branick kept pushing, accessing the facility’s kitchen to rush back into danger with water and Gatorade for those struggling to breathe in the acrid haze. Then, she drove through flames to pluck a pair of stable goats from certain death.
“One of my owners replaced my tires because they were so burnt,” she said.
If there was someone to help or something to save, Branick raced toward it.
Branick also knew Bellocq was a diabetic and his wife had been severely burned, so she offered to drive to a dark gas station outside beyond the barricades so he could connect with family. She had to borrow $20 from a policeman for gas.
“She was such a hero to so many people,” Bellocq said.
Now, she’s in Washington D.C. fighting for her own life. Branick has suffered enormous medical complications from previously undiagnosed Lyme disease, unrelated to the fire.
At the one-year mark, she has had her gallbladder, appendix and three-quarters of her colon removed. Insurance tangles are threatening to bankrupt her. Yet she pushed through bouts of paralyzing anxiety and seizures from that very condition to continually assist others on a day when she singed half the hair on her head.
Why? Why risk so much despite all she had endured?
“Because the animals, they depend on us,” Branick said.
Meanwhile, Martine Bellocq is nearing what her husband estimates is her 10th surgery after months in a coma, eight skin grafts and the amputation of her lower left leg. Surgeries for her chin and eyelids were recently completed. Another for her neck is nearing.
The resilience from Martine astounds. When able, she began playing goalkeeper in her wheelchair during her grandkids’ backyard soccer games. During a lunch gathering of those touched by the fire on Friday at a local Bonsall cafe, she joked and shared stories.
A long road remains, but those moments of joy feel even more sweet.
“That was a huge mental obstacle,” Pierre said. “She thought she looked like a zombie and she didn’t want to scare the kids. It was the exact opposite of that. The kids have been amazing.”
Balancing the tricky financial footing of horse racing, however, almost has become too much.
Bellocq said insurance and the generosity of horse groups have fended off the avalanche of Martine’s medical bills. But the finicky business of racing — especially after losing Wild Bill Hickory and Royal Kuna to the fire — strains.
The Bellocqs are guiding a couple of promising 2-year-olds, but …
“It’s a huge, huge struggle business-wise,” Pierre said. “It’s so hard financially. I don’t know how long we can keep it up unless we have a breakthrough in the next couple of months.”
As the sad anniversary was about to arrive, Joe Herrick walked his filly Lovely Finish around the Del Mar barns. Minus a hairless patch on her left cheek, the side where the fireball jumped she and Herrick, the reminders of the days when she was unrecognizable have mostly faded.
Lovely Finish has bolted out of the gates three times since the fire that nearly claimed them both — collecting a pair of thirds and a recent second at Del Mar.
When Lovely Finish, who seems to live on a steady diet of lead shanks and hats, lifts the cap off Herrick’s head, small patches of flaky skin reveal a road map of all he’s been through, as well.
“People ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and you know what they’re talking about,” said Herrick, who stopped at the spot where his old barn stood to quietly reflect Friday morning. “When they say, ‘You look great,’ you know. Because I looked horrible before.
“But I wasn’t going to let this ruin my life. I was determined not to let this thing defeat me.”
And the nightmares?
“Not so much anymore, thank God,” he said. “Once in a while you’ll have a bad night, but you’re not sweating the bed every night like before. There are days when it feels like it was just last week and days when you can keep it behind you.”
Then Herrick walks back to the barn, back to Lovely Finish and back to a rebuilding world’s new normal.
©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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