By Dan Ross
When Martine Bellocq first closed her eyes and drifted into a deep, pain-medicated sleep, she found herself balancing on the deck of a boat on the choppy waters of a Cuban port, a hurricane barreling down ominously upon her. It wasn’t a memory–Martine has never been to Cuba. “I was dreaming,” she explained, “but it looked so real.”
As the days and weeks passed, the waters of Martine’s dreams began to quieten. So much so, she could leap from one boat to another. “And when I was tired on that boat, I’d jump onto another one.” Sometimes she simply drifted away, floating further and further out upon the calm azure oasis of the open sea.
Each time Martine emerged from these blissful excursions, the pain and the discomfort of the burns that covered 60% of her body tormented her. And so, “I would just fall asleep and sail away. I loved it. No pain. No nothing,” she said, almost wistfully. The vast borderless expanse of the ocean with its soothing sea mists offered Martine an escape from the aching, scorching reality awaiting her, just around the corner. A chance to retreat inwards, into distant, unearthly dimensions. A time to heal.
The burns that Martine suffered were sustained, it barely needs noting, in the fire that ravaged San Luis Rey Downs last December. That awful, fateful afternoon, Martine tried to rescue from his stall one of her horses, Wild Bill Hickory, but was beaten back by the flames that eventually engulfed her.
Pierre, Martine’s husband, found her on the ground amid the melee of the fire, and carried her to safety. But Wild Bill Hickory–a favorite of hers, a home-bred, from whom she expected big things–wasn’t so lucky. He sadly perished–one of 46 horses that died in the fire.
Nevertheless, it’s for this act of bravery and selflessness, as well as for her stoic resiliency since, that Martine collected the Laffit Pincay, Jr. Award in a ceremony at Del Mar yesterday. The award is given to someone who has served the industry with “integrity, dedication, determination and distinction.” No boxes, therefore, left unticked with this recipient. And as Martine noted, “I’m the first woman to win the award” individually (Ann Moss having won it alongside her husband, back in 2011).
The ceremony coincided with a transitional period in Martine’s recovery. She’s now back home, having spent most of the year hop-scotching between a series of hospitals, and medical and rehabilitation facilities. Del Mar also marked her first public appearance since the fire. I met Martine and Pierre a couple of weeks before the event, and asked Martine if she felt about the day any sense of trepidation.
“I’m okay. I’m okay,” Martine replied, very matter-of-fact. “I’m a tough cookie, like people say.”
The afternoon was a blistering one in Murrieta, in the shadow of Lake Elsinore, and Pierre, pushing Martine’s wheelchair, put in a dash across their sun-drenched apartment complex into their cool, air-conditioned clubhouse–the harsh sunlight too much for Martine’s exposed skin.
Beneath a peaked cap boasting a French Tricolore and pulled low over her face, Martine was clad in a pressure garment, like a beige catsuit in piecemeal, covering torso, legs and arms, little snips of pink and white marbled skin peeking through. The pressure garment had arrived only a few days before. It helps reduce scarring. She’s still getting accustomed to it. “I’ll have it on for six months,” she explained. Though general pain is managed through medication, the itching can prove unbearable. Pierre was called upon more than once on back-scratching duties.
They both have lost count of the number of operations Martine has undergone–about eight skin grafts “at least,” Pierre said. Another is required for an open wound beneath one eye. The tracheostomy tube is long removed, but Martine’s voice still bears the raspy remnants of the former aperture. Then there’s her amputated lower left leg–the fire damage so severe, the circulation so compromised, the doctors had no choice but to operate. Not that this confines Martine to her wheelchair.
Aside from all the routine physio, Martine frequently hauls herself up and out of the chair to “do a little dance” on one leg, she said. She has also been fitted with a prosthetic limb. Only, “it gives me a blister because my skin is so sensitive,” she said. “You have to wait for it to heal, a week and a half or two weeks at a time.”
And yet, some elements of Martine’s recovery can be described as nothing short of miraculous. Early on, the doctors told Martine she had end-stage renal disease, and, as a result, underwent regular dialysis. “They said, maybe I would need a kidney transplant.”
A friend, however, connected the Bellocqs with a French-based doctor. He asked them for a readout of her blood work and a description of her injuries, after which, he sent them a CD of soundwaves specially engineered to heal her particular health problems.
“It was a very strange thing,” said Pierre. Martine then proceeded to imitate the sound on the disc–what can be best described as an eerie high-pitched whine, like something out of the Twilight Zone.
Strange as it was, they began playing the disc every day, as instructed, until one day, “I go in and ask her, ‘how was the dialysis?’ And she waved her arms to say, ‘no dialysis,'” said Pierre. “She was completely fine. It almost disappeared overnight. Whether it was that or everyone’s prayers, it’s quite unbelievable.”
Other moments have oscillated between the ridiculous and the sublime. The first time Martine put on her prosthetic leg, she wore it home. On the journey back, they stopped off at San Luis Rey Downs to check on a filly running the next day.
As Martine slowly made her way to their barn, it turned out the prosthetic limb hadn’t been screwed on properly–you can guess what happened next. Undeterred, Pierre grabbed the wheelchair and pushed his wife the rest of the way, and at the barn Martine approached the filly, who gently rested her head in Martine’s chest.
“Horses have very good memories,” said Pierre, with a touch of wonder. “People don’t always realize that.”
To say that Pierre has been a lifeline to Martine these past few months would do a disservice to the word understatement. Back and forth, back and forth, Pierre ping-pongs between their horses in training–they currently have six at San Luis Rey Downs–and Martine, to wherever she is at the time, never mind the Odyssey of errands he runs in between.
“In a way, having the horses to look after in the mornings has been helpful, keeps my mind off it for a few hours,” said Pierre, with characteristic restraint, his voice as quiet as a librarian’s. Throughout, he’s been just the sort of unflappable, sensible presence needed for a situation that’s hard to make sense of.
That said, for these trials Pierre has paid an emotional toll. “The toughest part for me was the first couple of months, going through the events of the fire,” Pierre said, describing how that day played over and over in his mind like a film reel, leading to agonizing what-could-haves and what-ifs. “Now, I’m ok with it because I realize I couldn’t have done anything differently.”
Martine, on the other hand, is a self-professed force of nature, someone who lets her emotions bubble easily to the surface. As we talked, she zig-zagged her wheelchair back and forth, left and right, side to side, rearranging herself constantly in the seat, all the while expressing a barely-suppressed desire to return to a world as close as possible to the one before the fire.
“I don’t want to be a handicapped person–I can do anything. I can cook. I can wheel the wheelchair. I can use the computer,” she said, underscoring a remarkable independent spirit that has driven both her physical and mental recovery. She was offered psychological counselling, for example, but nixed the idea flat.
“‘I don’t need to talk to people–I’m okay,'” she told them. “What did I go through? Okay, I went through a fire. It’s sad. Sure. I cried a little bit because he’s my favorite horse. But having been around horses for so many years, I’ve seen so many things.”
The sheer emotional enormity of what she’s been through isn’t lost on her–far from it. Nor how it has affected others. “I tell you, it was harder on him than for me,” she said, about Pierre. “For me, I’m tough. Deep inside, I knew he was hurt.”
Still, she admits the fire has softened her own perspective on life. “A little bit,” she said. “I’m more sympathetic. I will have tears come to my eyes when I see something sad on TV.” That said, “I’m not afraid of death. Everybody has to die–it’s a part of life.”
The life that now awaits them both is one gaining greater clarity all the time, but the vagaries of the future still cloud that crystal ball. The here and now, however, is marked by the Laffit Pincay, Jr. Award–a tribute, they feel, to all who battled valiantly that day in the fire, and to each and every helping hand extended afterwards.
“To award it to Martine, and everything she’s done, it represents all racing people, the whole backstretch,” said Pierre. “There were a lot of other heroes beside her. This award is for all people who deserve recognition in this business. And rightfully so.”
As to Martine’s future as a trainer, her daughter talks retirement. “She thinks I’ve given enough of my life to horses,” said Martine. “She said, ‘Now it’s time to take care of yourself.'”
A part of Martine agrees. “It’s hard–it’s not easy to stay in business. Maybe we’ll retire to the south of France and eat pate and cheese and drink wine. I’m 65, you know.”
And yet, it’s hard to imagine that indomitable spirit of hers laying idle. “What am I going to do in retirement, sit in front of the TV? I’d be bored. I’d be missing something in my life.”
And, when I asked her where she’d like to be in a year’s time, the response was immediate: “I will have a stake horse and run in the Kentucky Derby.”
“And win it?” I asked.
“First woman to win the Kentucky Derby,” she replied, adamantly.
No longer, then, do Martine’s dreams whisk her away to far-flung places, exotic ports and tranquil seas, as a means of escape. No, from the ashes of devastation have emerged those old familiar hopes and aspirations–that the next horse, perhaps, or the one after that or the one after that, could be the one to catapult both she and Pierre to the summit of this strange, heartbreaking and wonderful sport called horse racing.
“I don’t dream bad dreams. I don’t cry. I accept that life goes on,” Martine said. “Sometimes I get upset because my horse [Wild Bill Hickory] died, sure, but maybe another horse comes along who’s just as nice as him.”