The California horse racing community continues to find its new normal after the devastating wildfire, dubbed the “Lilac Fire,” that ripped through San Luis Rey Downs on December 7, killing 46 horses and injuring several horsemen. Those connected to the racing industry, as well as equestrians from across the nation, have been quick to step up, donating money, clothing, veterinary supplies, equipment, time and more in an effort to ease the burden of recovery.
The groundswell of support is thanks in no small part to Leo Tapia, whose Facebook Live video of herds of horses running loose to escape the fire and horsemen (including himself) frantically trying to free as many horses as they could from their stalls before fire consumed the barns, was shared thousands of times on Facebook and ran on national and local news networks across the country. While an experience like that is something those on the grounds will not soon forget, Tapia's video seared the images into the minds of many, many more who continue to want to support those – both horses and humans – whose lives and livelihoods have been impacted by the blaze.
To date, roughly $1 million worth of donations – both monetary and in the form of donated items – have been collected, thanks to organizations like Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA); the California Retirement Management Account (CARMA); the California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation, Inc. (CTHF); and a GoFundMe page set up by The Stronach Group, Santa Anita Park and Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, among others.
“One of our board members, Bing Bush, went to the track the day after the fire and immediately started assessing needs,” said TCA Executive Director Erin Crady, who manages her organization's Horses First Fund. The fund, which was started in 2016 by LNJ Foxwoods and raised over $100,000 on behalf of fire victims this past week, has also been used in recent months to help those affected by hurricanes.
“Immediately after the fire the need was primarily horse-focused, so Bing and volunteers went to Mary's Tack and Feed and bought shavings, lead ropes, hay nets, muck buckets, etc., and distributed them to the trainers whose horses were displaced by the fires and were being kept at Del Mar and Trifecta [Equine Athletic Center].”
Santa Anita Vice President of Marketing Nate Newby was on the front lines of the coordination efforts. Alerted to the fire while dealing with the evacuation of his own horse due a separate fire farther north, Newby immediately drove the 200 miles to Del Mar.
“My wife [Sterling] and I were at the evacuation center in Santa Barbara last Thursday checking on our own horse who had been evacuated in the middle of the night because of the quickly-growing Thomas Fire when I got the call about San Luis Rey,” said Newby. “Thursday night was just about trying to ID horses and doing anything we could to make them comfortable. By Friday, Del Mar had turned into an amazingly organized machine as hundreds of volunteers arrived and started pitching in to help care for the horses or bringing clothing, donations or food for the workers.”
Newby coordinated with the racing office at Del Mar to launch the official GoFundMe page which has raised more than $630,000 as of Wednesday afternoon.
“This past week at the Del Mar stable area was a life-changing experience,” Newby continued. “The entire industry came together in a way I could never have imagined. Everyone from all aspects of the racing industry, as well as volunteers who knew nothing about horses, worked together to accomplish whatever tasks needed to be done.”
The effects of the Lilac Fire on the horses and people will be felt for months, leaving many to ask what they can do to continue to support their fellow horsemen and their beloved equines.
Newby explained that a committee comprised of representatives from both Santa Anita and Del Mar, as well as owner and trainer representatives, has been formed to guide how the money from the GoFundMe page will be allocated.
“We want to get it directly into the hands of those who need it as quickly as possible. On Monday, the committee finalized a plan to get some financial assistance to every stable worker based at San Luis Rey,” said Newby. “As the donations were coming in, we heard over and over that people want some of the money to go to the grooms and other stable workers, many of which risked their lives to save the horses in the fire.”
According to the Santa Anita website, each stable worker was given $500 to help with living expenses and immediate needs.
“We quickly realized we also need to help the 20 trainers that were stabled in the barns that burned down, who lost all of their equipment and supplies needed to care for their horses. This includes bridles, halters, saddles, webbings, bits, feed buckets, stall mats, hay nets and more. Their loss is massive, and we need to provide some quick assistance to get their stables back operational to ensure they have the basic requirements needed to properly care for their horses. By assisting the trainers in getting their stables back up and running, it ensures the horses have everything they need and also puts the grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders and other stable help back to work.
“This initial dispersant from the GoFundMe page will be followed by a second phase as we identify and evaluate other needs. I think some of the decisions will require a little more time, such as providing assistance to any horses that need to be retired due to injuries from the fire or evacuation. All of the funds will be paid out as quickly as we can while taking enough time on phase two and three for the group to make informed decisions and understand the full scope of the tragedy.”
Newby also noted that fund will also go to help trainer Joe Herrick, trainer Martine Bellocq and outrider Les Baker, who all sustained serious injuries while saving horses from the burning barns.
“We are coordinating with CTHF to make sure all three receive the assistance and care they need,” said Newby.
When disaster strikes, the main priority is saving the lives of those affected and removing them from danger. Once that is accomplished, the secondary needs come into focus. For those who braved the inferno to rescue horses, that includes tending to both their material needs with clothing and supplies, but their mental needs as well.
Sharla Rae Sanders, who serves as operations manager for Doug O'Neill Stables, helped to coordinate efforts to assist the people displaced by the fire. Sanders was well-suited for the impromptu job, having worked in hospital administration prior to joining the O'Neill stable, where she focused on disaster preparedness and coordinated safety drills and exercises, including triage, staging, planning and more.
“Making sure people have their prescription medication, sometimes that involved having a doctor on site to write new prescriptions if necessary. All of their paperwork, including passports for instance, are gone. Think about everything we take for granted – your phone charger, for example. People need to be able to talk back and forth with their families,” said Sanders. “Attention to mental health is also key. Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress were seen early on and workers need to be able to speak with professionals about their experiences.”
Bloodstock agent and Thoroughbred owner Bob Feld, who lives near Del Mar, was also quick to act, offering his address as a shipping point for donations from an Amazon.com wish list that was set up for donations.
“It got retweeted over 1,000 times and by Tuesday afternoon we had more than 500 boxes delivered. We transported the parcels to the track, opened and sorted them and then broke down all of the boxes so they could be recycled,” said Feld, who also credited a group from Kentucky, which included his son Sean Feld, Renee Daily, Allegra Lee, Erin Hogan, Randy Gullett, Caroline Walsh, Carleigh Fedorka and Luke Sullivan, who all flew to California along with veterinary supplies and other aid, thanks to Spendthrift Farm, which donated their jet to aid with the relief effort. “We helped to build clothing racks and unload the mattresses [donated by Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale to those displaced by the fire].”
Feld echoes the sentiments of Sanders that the immediate needs have been met thanks to generosity and support that came from around the country, and that now the efforts are being re-focused on helping horsemen (and, in effect, their horses) regain a sense of normalcy and routine.
“Thanks to all of the efforts made by so many, the human side of the situation is very much under control currently,” Feld continued. “Buying tack and supplies for especially the trainers who completely lost their barns is being addressed now. That is such a specific purchase that it would be best to support those efforts by donating money.”
If you want to financially support any of the organizations listed in the article above, please click on the links below and note that the donation is for the San Luis Rey Downs recovery efforts.
Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA) (direct your donation to the Horses First Fund)
California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation (CTHF)
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. She is the go-to food source for a dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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