The first of the Lilac fire horses who had to be evacuated from San Luis Rey Downs and take up residence at Del Mar in December began to filter back to the Bonsall training center this past weekend and more followed Monday. The transition will continue throughout this week with all of the approximately 400-plus Thoroughbreds who have called Del Mar home for the past four months returned by next weekend.
“We've had about 100 horses ship out over the past two days,” said Del Mar's racing secretary, David Jerkens, who has been overseeing the track's busy stable area since the fast-moving fire burned more than 4,100 acres, destroyed more than 200 homes and structures and took 46 equine lives at San Luis Rey in early December. “We will have another 50 ship over today (Monday). By this coming weekend, we expect they'll all be back home at San Luis Rey.”
Among trainers who moved their runners back to the Bonsall facility over the past few days were Richard Baltas, Doug O'Neill and Phil D'Amato. Shipping Monday morning were horses overseen by Michelle Dollase and Dan Dunham.
Besides the horses, roughly 250 licensed assistant trainers, grooms and stable hands working for 21 different trainers also took up post-fire residence at Del Mar and they, too, will gradually shift entirely back to San Luis Rey, which is about 35 miles northeast of the seaside track.
The fire destroyed seven barns and damaged an eighth at the 240-acre San Luis Rey site, but the facility — owned and operated by The Stronach Group, which includes Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields in California among its racing holdings — has moved forward in restoring its viability as a training center, including constructing new barns. The center is expected to once again hold about 450 runners, just as it did before the fire.
“As Southern California Thoroughbred horsemen move from Del Mar back to a refurbished and renewed San Luis Rey Downs throughout this week,” said Alan Balch, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, “we once again want to express our deep gratitude to Del Mar for its exceptional response to the industry's stabling and training needs in December. We never will forget Del Mar's generosity – and the public's – which made it possible for us to continue to care for our horses under first-class conditions.
“Back at San Luis Rey, we are most appreciative of The Stronach Group's multi-million dollar reinvestment there and its commitment to continuity for all horsemen and tracks relying on that beautiful facility.”
Following the fire on Thursday, December 7, the Del Mar stable area took in nearly 1,000 horses over the next two days. Approximately 450 of them were Thoroughbred racehorses while the others consisted of various breeds whose owners were escaping the fire that threatened ranches, farms and homes in San Diego's North County area. When the horses came in, they were soon followed in the next hours and days by hundreds and hundreds of people – veterinarians, other horsemen, members of the general public, families – with aid, supplies, food, gifts and a willingness to do most anything to help horses and horsemen uprooted by the blaze.
“The speed at which Del Mar turned into an evacuation center following the fire – and then quickly became a stabling and training facility right afterwards – was truly amazing,” said Tom Robbins, DMTC's vice president for racing. “The community and the California horse racing industry owe a large debt of thanks to the 22nd DAA and their hard working staff. We were the benefactors of a wonderful spirit of sharing and pulling together. The 22nd DAA gave us all a great lift by allowing the coexistence of over 400 horses training alongside their many other established Fairgrounds events.”
As the extent of the need following the fire became apparent, aid efforts rapidly followed. Several GoFundMe pages sprung up online, one quickly raising more than $600,000 toward the cause in a matter of days. One horse owner who insisted on remaining anonymous wrote a check for $84,000 for equipment and clothing for the stable hands who had lost everything they had in the flames. Unsolicited, horse tack and gear flowed in from horsemen at racetracks across the country. Longtime horse owner and musical icon Burt Bacharach and his good friend Elvis Costello put on a fundraising night of song at the nearby Belly Up Tavern that brought in over $150,000.
Trainer Peter Miller, who lost horses in the fire, said the response by the surrounding community and the horse community in particular “restored my faith in humanity. From this terrible circumstance, there came an uplifting experience that all the horsemen involved deeply appreciated.”
By the Monday after the fire had struck, Del Mar took on a new role as a winter training facility. With the approval and assistance of its landlord – the 22nd District Agricultural Association, the state agency that oversees the Fairgrounds – Del Mar provided critical stabling for the Southern California racing circuit, thus allowing runners to train and prepare to keep racing supplemented and healthy at both Los Alamitos and Santa Anita over the next several months.
Current plans call for this Friday to be the last training day at Del Mar and for all racehorses to be relocated by Sunday, April 15. The popular Del Mar National Horse Show is scheduled to open on Tuesday, April 17 and continue through to Sunday, May 6. Over the next several days, more than 1,300 Western, Dressage and Hunter/Jumper horses will begin shipping into the track's stable area to take up residence for one of the foremost horse shows in the west.
Del Mar Fairgrounds then will begin its conversion for its annual Fair – one of the nation's largest – that will be held between June 1 and July 4. Shortly following that event, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club will kick off its 79th summer season on Wednesday, July 18.
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