San Diego

Elite Thoroughbred Racehorses Killed in Lilac Fire

Nearly 500 horses were stabled at San Luis Rey Downs, and one man who worked there described "total pandemonium when several hundred horses were cut loose"

Hundreds of elite thoroughbred racehorses sprinted away from flames Thursday as one of California's major wildfires tore through a training center in San Diego County.

Not all made it.

The Lilac Fire had burned 4,100 acres west of southbound Interstate 15 and south of State Route 76 by 9 p.m. Thursday. Approximately 5,000 structures were being threatened by the fire, which was at zero percent containment.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for several communities, including areas in Bonsall and Oceanside. Twenty structures were destroyed and 12 were damaged, according to Cal Fire officials. But that number will likely rise as firefighters attempted to get a handle on the out of control fire.

At least three people suffered burn injuries.

Among those impacted by the fire were animals, kept in ranches and other properties in the area, including about eight barns at the San Luis Rey Downs training center in Bonsall, where nearly 500 racehorses were stabled. 

In the hazy confusion as both horses and humans evacuated, about 25 horses had died.

Horses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars who are usually carefully walked from place to place were simply set free and encouraged to run away as flames engulfed the center near Bonsall, which is just a few miles from where the fire broke out.

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. McBride, who works at the Del Mar racetrack, said some horses were evacuated to the nearby track where many of them compete.

"There was so much smoke it was difficult to see," said horse trainer Dan Durham, who got his 20 horses rounded up and was loading them into vans to be evacuated. "Some of the horses were turned loose so they could be safe. They were scattered around."

San Luis Rey Downs is home to horses that run at nearby Del Mar and other top-flight California tracks like Santa Anita Park. 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.

The sign at the front calls it "Home of Azeri," the now-retired mare who was the 2002 U.S. Horse of the Year who earned over $4 million in her career.

Horse trainer Scott Hansen said he knows some of the 30 horses he had at the facility were killed.

"I don't know how many are living and how many are dead," Hansen said. "I guess I'll have to figure that out in the morning." For now, he said he was concentrating on getting his horses that survived to evacuation centers.

The tragedy comes as the horse community has rallied to help save animals in danger. 

"There are easily 100 or more of us going back and forth," Shannon Clark, co-owner of the equine apparel company Customize My Horse, told NBC 7 Thursday as she was driving to get her fourth evacuation group of the day.

The Facebook page for Southern California Equine Emergency Evacuation is providing a central location for people who need help and those who can provide it. 

Several hundred horses and other animals have been evacuated to safety at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which is in need of supplies

Earlier this week, at least 30 horses were killed in the Creek Fire raging further north near the Los Angeles neighborhood of Sylmar. Virginia Padilla, whose family owns the ranch where the animals were killed, said someone was able to save a few of her horses.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us