Racehorses set free as California wildfire nears training facility

Ranch hands trying to rescue 500 horses as the Lilac Fire rages

Terrified, the sleek speedsters stampeded through Bonsall's San Luis Rey Downs horse-training facility, whinnying, rolling their eyes and thundering through thick smoke as the Lilac Fire quickly consumed the barns where they had spent the morning serenely munching hay.

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. Several people in the area's horse community put out word, via social media, that experienced horse people were being asked to go to the fairgrounds to assist with housing the animals. Barns have burned down. It just happened so fast. "I got good news about 30 minutes ago that they're on the way to Del Mar", the Hall of Fame trainer said.

Keith Brackpool, the chairman of Santa Anita which owns San Luis Rey Downs, said stable personnel had no choice but to let horses loose to get them away from the barns.

Dunham told The Blood-Horse some horses were discovered dead on the track during efforts to round up the loose horses. "I opened the pen and tried to get behind her and get her out, and she wouldn't get out", Sise said.

Dollase was taking care of one of Machowsky's trainees at San Luis Rey.

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 horses survived. They were all just running around so wild.

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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"I never thought in my life that I'd see something like that".

Mora said O'Neill's string of horses at San Luis Rey was largely OK, and trainers Richard Mandella, Adam Kitchingman, and Richard Baltas also escaped largely unscathed. There were 20 vans in there with us and we were just grabbing horses and putting them in.

An area immediately north of the training center was ordered evacuated before 2 p.m. "We're very lucky, but feel for those who weren't as fortunate".

Ranch hands attempted to rescue hundreds of horses from the San Luis Rey Training Center as the Lilac Fire continued to scorch thousands of acres.

"The issue is getting the transportation over there and getting them evacuated", said Del Mar racing secretary David Jerkens. "We're open to anything with four legs". Later in the afternoon, Jerkens said television pictures showed some vans leaving the property and stable staff trying to reach the horses on the infield.

This story will be updated.

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