Racehorses set free as California wildfire nears training facility

Horse evacuation

A horse being evacuated from the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center in Sylmar due to the Creek Fire

According to trainer Cliff Sise, horses at San Luis Rey were released from their stalls in order to avoid burning barns and have been running free within the facility since the afternoon.

Trainer Richard Baltas said his barn is intact and all of his horses are in their stalls.

At first, the barn evacuation was orderly, with trainers doing all they could to coax the glossy and muscular bunch up a slight rise that connected the stables to the track.

"With these winds, you can't control much", Machowsky said.

The tight-knit horse racing community was clearly shaken.

Mac McBride, who was working with the center's trainers, said it was, "total pandemonium when several hundred horses were cut loose", but he believes most of the about 450 horses stabled there survived. It just happened so fast.

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"I wish we would have made that decision (to let horses out of their stalls) a little sooner, but to turn racehorses loose on a racetrack is not a safe thing", Hansen said. "There was not time to do anything else". Eventually, most calmed down enough to be loaded onto trailers destined for the stables at Del Mar Fairgrounds.

With visibility very low, and thousand-pound animals moving in often-random directions, trampling was a very real possibility.

"I don't even know if my house is still standing, to be honest", Kitchingman said.

"There's a lot of dead horses", he said. They were all just running around so wild.

No official casualty count was available Thursday evening though it did seem judging by the sheer numbers of four-hooved fire victims moving throughout the area, that the quick work of skillful horse experts managed to save the lives of hundreds.

"We had vans ready but they wouldn't let them in", Rothblum said.

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Just after 6 p.m. ET, an NBC San Diego reporter on site said those assisting in evacuation efforts at San Luis Rey "had panic in their voices" and were "begging for an extra facemask because they were overcome with the smoke".

Covering 205 acres, horses have access to an equine pool, arena, paddock and other amenities.

The training facility is known for stabling high-caliber horses that compete at Del Mar, Santa Anita and other top-flight California tracks. Doug O'Neill, whose horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup races, is among the trainers who keep at least part of their stable there.

Cigar, who at the time of his retirement was North American racing's leading money victor, was trained early in his career at San Luis Rey Downs. A sign outside the complex reads "Home of Azeri", a reference to the former racing mare who was named the 2002 Horse of the Year and earned over $4 million in her career.

According to a 2013 story in the Daily Racing Form, San Luis Rey Downs was built in the late 1960s to be a parimutuel racing facility by C. Arnholt Smith and John Alessio, who meant to "wrest the choice summer racing dates away from the track at the Del Mar Fairgrounds".

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