Fires 'a tragic blow to the California thoroughbred racing industry'

By Ron Flatter  ( 

December 8, 2017 12:28 AM
Horses ran loose after being set free from their burning barns Thursday at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center in southern California.
© Screen grab from Facebook video by Leo Tapia.

This column was going to be all about how few horses are in Saturday’s features at Los Alamitos. How only five horses are in a Kentucky Derby prep, and only five more are in a Kentucky Oaks prep. How shrinking field sizes are still a big problem in southern California.


Then came the fires.


Six big ones had already been burning around southern California, fueled by 20-40 mph wind. But it really hit home Thursday when the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center in the San Diego County hills started to burn down. The first word came at 1:18 p.m. PST in a Tweet from the North County Fire Protection District.


Within minutes came an evacuation order. Humans and more than 400 horses were told to get out. Dozens of thoroughbreds and presumably other breeds were turned loose from their barns and shooed away from the growing Lilac Fire. Then came pleas on line to bring in horse trailers, even though they were already being turned away from a vulnerable road before more could come to the rescue.


“They weren’t letting vans in off the highway to get the horses out,” Los Alamitos racing secretary Bob Moreno told VSiN about an hour after the fire was reported to him. “(Trainers) Peter Miller and Doug O’Neill have stalls over there and at Santa Anita. We’re not sure which horses are where. Quite a few of their horses are at San Luis Rey.”


While most if not all of O’Neill’s string survived, Miller was not so fortunate. One of his grooms, Leo Tapia, shot a heartbreaking video while he was on a rescue mission. The phone video posted to Facebook showed confused horses running through the smoke and the dust. They sprinted instinctively toward the crumbling shelters that were their homes. Then they pivoted en masse as one worker after another risked his own life, some covering their faces with rags while waving the animals away from the spreading flames.


“Brutal,” Zayat Stables vice president Justin Zayat texted when asked if he had seen the video. “Very scary.”


Renowned DRF racing photographer Barbara Livingston wrote on Twitter that as Tapia “bolted off to let horses out, he called some ‘Mommy’ and took care with each one, saving them. Here’s hoping there is a special Eclipse Award for folks like Leo Tapia, who saved countless horses.”


Trainer Cliff Sise told Jeremy Balan of Blood-Horse that he had no choice but to let his horses run away from the fast-moving fire. Within minutes his barns had burned down. O’Neill’s assistant Leandro Mora told Balan that he saw two horses on fire and in a panic plus another that was euthanized after breaking its hip.


The California Horse Racing Board reported late Thursday that about 25 horses were killed in the fire.


“We are absolutely devastated,” said Brian Trump, racing manager of southern California-based Rockingham Ranch. “Our grooms and staff had to let our horses loose.”


Some survivors were herded away from the stables and onto the training track, where the staff that had ignored orders to get out for their own safety were trying to calm the animals. Dozens of other horses that made it into trailers were taken to Del Mar, a 35-mile drive out of harm’s way from a fire that would grow by dark to nearly six square miles. Del Mar racing secretary David Jerkens told The Daily Racing Form that many of the horses could not be identified right away.


Zayat said, “thank God,” his stable was lucky. It did not have any horses at San Luis Rey. Instead, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Solomini, favored to win Saturday’s Los Alamitos Futurity, has been at Santa Anita.

With firefighters stretched past their limits across southern California, the Lilac Fire was still said Thursday night to be zero percent contained. Even as that battle continued, the morning-after loomed. Balan reported that the people who run Del Mar were calling for trained volunteers to show up at the backside stables as early as 2 a.m. PST Friday to make sure the horses had water and had not gotten colic.


Then there is the matter of displaced stable employees, many of whom lived at San Luis Rey. Nexus Racing Club co-founder Sophie Shore opened a page at to raise money to “go toward fixing structural damage to barns and providing medical care to horses and humans alike.” Within five hours more than $12,000 had been raised, $2,000 more than the original goal. Shore said the money would be distributed through the Thoroughbred Charities Association.


After all this, somehow the problem with field sizes for the Los Al features Saturday does not seem that important in comparison with the fire.


“This is a tragic blow to the California thoroughbred racing industry,” said Los Alamitos vice president Jack Liebau, whose canceled Friday afternoon races but left Saturday’s card in tact. “We express our sympathy to the owners, trainers and caretakers. We salute those who so bravely attempted to safeguard horses.”


Two Baffert colts are Los Al Futurity choices


A pair of Bob Baffert-trained colts – Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Solomini (7-5) and impressive maiden winner McKinzie (8-5) – are shortest priced on the morning line against only three others in the 8½-furlong Los Alamitos Futurity, a Grade 1 Kentucky Derby prep worth $300,000. Post time is 4:28 p.m. EST Saturday.


Solomini and McKinzie are also among the 23 individual nominees in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Runaway Ghost (8-1), a stakes winner last month at Golden Gate Fields, is also in the race.


Dream Tree (8-5), an Uncle Mo filly trained by Baffert, is expected to be favored against only four others in the $300,000 Grade 1 Starlet Stakes, an 8½-furlong race that is a points prep for the Kentucky Oaks. Post time is 4:58 p.m. Saturday.


Racing notes: Stormy Liberal tries Hong Kong


The 30-1 winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, is the only U.S. horse that will race Sunday in the Hong Kong International Races. Racing clockwise for the first time, 5-year-old gelding Stormy Liberal (33-1) is a long shot to win the six-furlong, $2.37 million Hong Kong Sprint, one of the four Group 1 turf races on the Sha Tin. Hong Kong-based Mr. Stunning (9-4) was the Sprint favorite in European betting markets according to Oddschecker. Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Highland Reel (11-4) and this year’s winner Talismanic (9-2) are the top two choices in the $2.3 million Hong Kong Vase. Seasons Bloom (7-2), a Group 2 winner at Sha Tin last month, is favored in the $2.94 million Hong Kong Mile. Three-time Group 1 winner Werther (2-1) is a heavy favorite in the $3.2 million Hong Kong Cup. Post times for the four featured races (all EST early Sunday) are Vase 1 a.m., Sprint 1:40 a.m., Mile 2:50 a.m. and Cup 3:30 a.m.


Three-time Venezuelan Grade 1 runner-up El Cubita (3-1), Puerto Rico Triple Crown champion Justiciero (7-2) and Panamanian Grade 2 winner Fray Angélico (9-2) are expected to be the most backed horses this weekend in the 50th Clásico del Caribe at Gulfstream Park. The nine-furlong dirt race for 3-year-olds bred in nations along the Caribbean is being run for the first time in the U.S. Post time is 4:45 p.m. EST Saturday.


After a three-year break from racing, Toast Of New York (2-1) was a winner in his return Wednesday. The 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up defeated three other horses in a $15,800 stakes race on the all-weather track at Lingfield, England. Now owned by Al Shaqab, the 6-year-old trained by Jamie Osborne and ridden by Frankie Dettori may now be aimed at next month’s $16 million Pegasus World Cup. After his Breeders’ Cup loss to Bayern at Santa Anita, Toast Of New York suffered a tendon injury in his preparation for the 2015 Dubai World Cup. He was immediately retired to stud, but he reportedly covered only 15 mares since.


Hayley Turner, the winningest woman to ride racehorses in Great Britain, has been accused of making illegal bets. The British Horseracing Authority said she made 164 on-line bets over a 1½-year period, although she made only $215. Licensed jockeys are not allowed to do that in England. Turner, 34, retired from everyday racing in November 2015, but she still held a license and accepted infrequent riding assignments. Now a racing commentator for British TV, Turner has been ordered to appear in front of a BHA disciplinary committee Thursday.


Charles Cella, whose family was responsible for building Oaklawn Park into a big-time racecourse, died Wednesday at St. Louis after suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Cella, 81, took over the Arkansas track from his father in 1968. He raised the purse for the Arkansas Derby to $1 million in 2004, ensuring that the race would remain one of the top preps for the Kentucky Derby. Cella’s sons are Oaklawn Park executives, so the track is expected to stay in the family’s hands for a fourth generation.


Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at This week it features Zayat Stables vice president Justin Zayat discussing Kentucky Derby prospects and TVG host Candice Hare handicapping this weekend’s Hong Kong International Races. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify.

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