By Dan Ross
“It’s wonderful back there,” said trainer Phil D’Amato’s assistant Linda Thrash, turning her eyes to the bright ochre red roofs of the barns behind her. “Everything’s cleaned, repaired, painted. It looks great. I’m really happy.”
We’re stood at the entrance to the San Luis Rey Training Center training track early on this bright Monday morning, surrounded by a wall of sunlight and color and life. Trees blanketed in leaves. Hillsides drenched in all shades of green. Flowers a labyrinth of reds, blues and yellows–a vastly different sight to that only four months before, when Thrash had been one of the many who fought through the black smoke and the flames and the searing heat in an effort to save the near 500 horses trapped there by the Lilac Fire that engulfed the facility that fateful December afternoon.
In all, 46 horses perished. Martine Bellocq and Joe Herrick were hospitalized. Trainers, grooms, and hotwalkers watched helplessly as their lives and livelihoods disappeared into cinders and ash.
Time, however, has a way of sweeping all before it, and time has certainly had a transformative effect on San Luis Rey. And this morning marked the re-commencement of training at San Luis Rey. Horses belonging to trainers D’Amato, Richard Baltas and Doug O’Neill trickled back in over the weekend–Saturday being the four-month anniversary of the tragedy, coincidentally–and the rest of the horses stabled temporarily at Del Mar will return this week.
Before all horses can return to San Luis Rey, however, there’s still more work to do. Not that facility general manager Kevin Habell and his crew have been sitting idly by.
“It’s been a heck of a project,” said Habell, about a seven-days-a-week work program now nearing its fourth month. They start between seven or eight o’clock in the morning. “And we go until it goes dark.”
On a tour of the facility, Habell showed me the former site of eight barns destroyed in the fire, where largely metal buildings had been engulfed by a white-heat so strong, it warped porcelain toilets in the bathrooms. “The fire department said that that’s got to be 2500, 3000 degrees. Just a crazy once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
What remained of these buildings was razed, the scrap hauled out, the surface graded flat, and in their place have grown two giant white marquees with shiny steel innards–what Habell calls pavilions one and two.
“It was the fastest stabling we could get, to get people in and the horses back,” said Habell.
One of the pavilions can house 104 horses, the other 144. The roofing material is non-flammable. The floors are rubber matted. The plumbing and the electrics is a work in progress.
“And all this is going to get a nice two, three inches of sand,” said Habell, pointing to the wide aisles slicing through the middle of the stables. “We’ll see how this works out for now,” he added, for, if the light, airy structures prove popular with the trainers, they could become a more permanent addition to the San Luis Rey landscape. “They keep them at Gulfstream and Laurel Park,” he said. “All the trainers I’ve brought by really like it.”
Not all the barns perished. Seven barns survived–somehow.
“It’s so bizarre how it attacked certain things and not others,” he said, about the capricious nature of the fire–a “dirty fire,” Habell called it, as it behaved in a dirty-rotten way. These barns were pressure washed top to bottom, given a new lick of paint, and their roofs replaced with metal. Habell and crew have also erected a little box-city of rooms for the stable staff to live in. Two-hundred palm trees were hacked down. New wash-racks are being pieced together. Scorched manure bins have been re-built. And new day pens and hot-walking machines are on the to-do list.
“This is so odd, because this is where the fire started,” said Habell, pointing to a lonely patch of green turf amid the brown of the San Luis Rey construction site. Right now, a young palm tree and a small colorful clump of flowers sprout from the grass. Eventually, this emerald rectangle will be a memorial to the fire.
“It’s a survivor, and that’s what we are,” Habell said.
Another San Luis Rey fire survivor is outrider Les Baker, who broke nine ribs–two in two different places–when he was trampled amid the melee.
“It was like throwing gravel into a cement mixer,” he said of the healing process. “Laughing and sneezing and all that, now that was painful, let me tell you.”
Of that day, Baker remembers lying on the ground, a horse’s hoof coming down, crushing his chest.
“And that’s the last thing I remember,” he said.
When Baker came around, he remembers seeing near him his paint pony, dead, having been fatally struck by the same herd of horses as he was.
“That was the hardest part,” Baker said, “leaving him there on the road.”
But this morning also marked Baker’s first day back on the job, and, apart from a few aches and pains, he’s pleased to be back.
“It’s a good day to be above ground,” he said, riding back to the barns aboard another pony who survived the fire.
What’s more, Baker’s grateful to be back at San Luis Rey. As is Linda Mikus, second assistant at the Phil D’Amato barn.
“The last time I was here, that’s where I saw the horse,” she said, describing how, during training that morning, she had ridden past a particular spot on the track where she had discovered a horse succumb through smoke inhalation. Still, she said, “I’m pleased to be back here.”
And her comments pretty much encapsulate the conflicting mood of the morning. For, amid the cheer and the optimism, the sense of “welcome home” bonhomie, the mental scars remain close, lurking there in the shadows, within easy reach.
“A lot of people saw terrible things. Injured horses. Burning people. Burning horses,” said Linda Thrash, down-playing what she experienced that day compared to what she said are the experiences of others. Just then, tears sprung to her eyes. “I had an angel watching over me, I guess.”