It was a scene of horror and panic at San Luis Rey Downs on Thursday as wind-fed fires engulfed parts of the thoroughbred training center near Bonsall in San Diego County, causing an unknown number of equine deaths.
It will be well in the day before the exact damage and number of fatalities will be known as many horses were just let out of their stalls and allowed to run free. Some were loaded on to and taken to Del Mar, some 35 miles away.
There was a report of one horse rescuer who was burned over 50% of their body and was in a medically induced coma. The California Horse Racing Board estimated that about 25 horses were killed in the fire.
St. Louis King Downs is a 500-stall training facility that became vital to the Southern California horse racing industry after Hollywood Park closed. The facility is used for thoroughbreds who are taking a break from racing and some trainers use it to house their horses in training and transport them to Del Mar, Santa Anita and Los Alamitos for races.
Los Alamitos canceled its eight-race Friday card to allow race track personnel to both mourn and relocate their horses. Racing will resume on Saturday.
"This is a tragic blow to the California thoroughbred racing industry and of great sorrow to everyone," said Jack Liebau, vice president of the Los Alamitos Racing Assn.
"We express our sympathy to the owners, trainers and caretakers of the horses victimized by this tragic event. We salute those who bravely attempted to safeguard horses at San Luis Rey Downs in the face of the swiftly approaching fire as well as those who transported horses to Del Mar under hazardous conditions and those who went to Del Mar to aid the horses moved there. "
Evacuations of horses started earlier on Thursday when the fire was menacing but not imminent. But the strong winds brought the fire closer in catastrophic speed and embers started to catch the roofs of the barns on fire. Barns, based on their contents, are highly combustible.
Horses are stubborn and not easily moved. Their stall is their home and their instinct is to stay or return to it. However, as the smoke filled the air and the fire was visible, many were just out of their stalls and herded to the training track area where there were no fuel buildings.
Trainer Cliff Sise, a regular on the Southern California circuit , said he saw about 10 horses including one of his fillies.
"It was dark, everything was hot and she would not come out," Sise told KFMB-TV in San Diego. "I opened the pen and tried to get behind her and got her out, and she would not get out. She's burned to death that quick. "
Trainer Scott Hansen fears he may have lost as many of 10 of his 30 horses.
" I do not know the extent of the damage, "Hansen told the Daily Racing Form . "I know I lost horses. I had 30 horses. My guy estimates at least eight to 10 did not make it. That's a guess.
"They were dropping the webbings to get them out of there. The palm trees caught fire above the barn. All hell broke loose real quick. "
Vans were on the scene to aid in the evacuation but the sheriff's department closed off all traffic going in and out of the area until later in the evening.
It's estimated that about 450 horses were on the property.