Fourmatt would have outrun the flames, and been at least a half-mile away in 44 seconds.
Owhata Chief would have smelled the smoke a week ahead of time and simply walked out of the barn, by himself, and built a new life.
No Way Tom would have walked circles in his stall – that’s all he ever did –
and probably created some sort of protective vortex.
Rollicking Run would have waited in her stall – calm, polite, patient to a fault. Her neighbor Lovely Duckling would have run through the back wall of her stall and cow-kicked the first person she encountered.
Odd Man would have tunneled out of the barn, then run back in to try to rescue the feed cart.
The fire at San Luis Rey Downs training center in California last month struck with such speed, force and danger that trainers and grooms turned horses loose as a last resort. Like plenty of other people in racing, I saw harrowing video of herds of panicked horses galloping through the stable area, read accounts of missing horses and heard tales of heroic efforts to save horses.
I donated some money to the recovery effort, and fought back tears over the 46 horses who perished. I marveled over the response of the industry, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and came up with clothing, bedding, tack, feed, hay, straw and anything else displaced horses and horsemen needed.
Finally, I thought of all the horses I’d worked with at Delaware Park, Timonium and various farms during summers off from high school and college. Would they have survived a fire? Would they have handled running amok in a pack around the barn area? Would one of them have led the way for the others? Could I have turned them loose and chased them from their stalls? Would they have understood why?
Every question was unimaginable.
There were no champions in our barn, but there were some cool, classy horses, plus a few screwballs, a rogue or two, geldings, fillies, mares, colts, lead ponies.
Maryland-bred Fourmatt won four of five as a 2-year-old in 1983 and took the Federico Tesio the next year. New Zealand-bred Owhata Chief was a top-class steeplechaser, and perhaps the smartest horse any of us ever knew. No Way Tom was a nut, plain and simple, but he made you root for him. Rollicking Run and Lovely Duckling were bay fillies, and about as different as a sleeping Labrador Retriever and a Jack Russell Terrier on Red Bull. Odd Man was a son of Round Table and a Swaps mare. Can you imagine? Ran 110 times. He won the Sussex Turf Handicap at Delaware Park and placed in a graded stakes on the flat. Then he became a hurdler. Perhaps more impressively, he could use his jaws like a steam shovel and pull up grass by the roots.
They were young, old, fat, skinny, big, small, smart, dumb, mean, sweet, fast, slow and loved. To have been so out of options, to give up, to turn them loose and hope for the best feels like anti-horsemanship. It would have hurt, just as it surely hurt those horsemen in California.
We never had a barn fire, but we – like anybody in this game – fretted about it. We checked extension cords like crazy, had extinguishers handy, posted No Smoking signs everywhere. But a fire would be an accident, some sort of remote possibility, and – other than in the close quarters of Timonium – unlikely to turn into a multi-barn disaster.
San Luis Rey was no ordinary barn fire. It was more like a storm, hammering down on the facility and its 450 resident horses. Once the Lilac Fire, part of a rash of brush fires in California in 2017, turned toward San Luis Rey there was no escaping it. Some horses were evacuated early (you can read about one in the Stakes Winners section). Many more didn’t have time.
Trainers, grooms, anybody really, did all they could. They stuffed horses on vans and trailers. The vehicles were headed to Del Mar racetrack, nearby ranches, anywhere but San Luis Rey. When rigs arrived at Del Mar, 40 miles away, drivers were asked whose horses they were hauling but couldn’t answer the questions. The horses were horses, in need of a refuge. Who they belonged to, who they were, didn’t matter.
Back at San Luis Rey, smoke filled the air, flames closed in, horses ran loose and barns burned to the ground.