On Track with Johnny D: I’m Not Surprised

I’m not surprised that brush fires recently ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres in Southern California. In fact, at this writing, with more warm, windy, dry, low-humidity days in the forecast, thousands more acres may burn before fires are completely contained. Having lived in the Pasadena area for 30 years, I comprehend the ferocity and destructive power of such blazes.

I’ve seen nearby hills glow. Cleared snowfall-like coats of ashes from cars. Stood alongside terrified evacuees wondering if ‘home’ had survived the night.

Miles from the front lines, I’ve inhaled smoky air and wondered aloud how anyone or anything could contain such natural fury—tireless and brave firefighters included. Water and retardant seemed about as ineffective as bows and arrows against Godzilla. Could this colorful, ferocious ball of orange, yellow, white and red ever rage uncontained and ultimately consume everything, everywhere?

Foolish thought? Perhaps. But not if you’ve ever sat ringside.

In the past, I’ve often wondered about animals, too. Wild and domesticated. How do they escape the infernos? Do they instinctively know which way to safety? Does nature deliver a dog-whistle ‘heads up’ only they can hear?

With virtually no warning, fire attacked San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall, Ca, home to approximately 400 Thoroughbreds and many of their caretakers. According to eye-witnesses and social media video clips, there was no time for anything but action. Brave trainers, vets, grooms, gallop people, maintenance staff–-anyone on the scene—rushed to help.

I’m not surprised that the tops of palm trees burst into flames like giant match sticks, releasing glowing embers into the air like fireflies. A single spark, randomly transported on the wings of a dry, 35 mile-per-hour Santa Ana wind like some flamable Forrest Gump feather, was all it took to ignite a murderous blaze.

A horse stable must appear as delectable to fire as Beluga caviar is to an heiress. Bone-dry wood, fluffy shavings, soft straw and fresh hay all served with a stiff, hot breeze side-dish…What could be more flammable? San Luis Rey Downs stables ignited within minutes. There was no recourse but to turn the horses loose. To free them from certain death inside stalls. Even though they had little clue which way to go.

If you’ve ever experienced the power and frenzy of a loose Thoroughbred racehorse–roaring around the racetrack or thundering back to the barn–then you probably can begin to comprehend the level of chaos and confusion surrounding herds of terrified runners in limited visibility.

I’m not surprised that Santa Anita, The Stronach Group, Del Mar and others immediately rushed to help, to organize the collection of goods, services and money. At this writing, more than $600,000 has been raised via donations to the TSG/Santa Anita & Del Mar GoFundMe account.

I’m not surprised that within hours of the disaster, horse owners, trainers, fans and horseplayers…yes, horseplayers…were on the grounds of the 22nd District Agricultural Association personally pitching in to help. Retired San Diego Tribune turf writer Hank Wesch, who joined the recovery effort Where the Turf Meets the Surf, suffered a heart attack in the process!

In early November, Del Mar successfully hosted Breeders’ Cup—a gathering of top horses and humans worldwide. It was two days of sunshine, fabulous racing and beautiful people! About one month later, within hours of the San Luis Rey Downs disaster, the track’s backside had been transformed into a temporary refuge for scarred and homeless humans and equines. It will remain in operation for the foreseeable future.

Truthfully, I don’t know which makes me prouder.

I’m not surprised that throughout the madness at San Luis Rey Downs many of the bravest were immigrants. Mexicans that treat racehorses like family. Throughout 40 years in the business, I’ve had the distinct pleasure to know some of these actual heroes and others just like them, completely devoted to caring for horses.

You don’t work in racing as much as you belong to it. Like with the circus. And when the ‘Hey, Rube’ call sounds, you do whatever to protect family members against outsiders–including natural disasters. Pitch black smoke, hellish heat, roaring flames. Don’t matter. Family first. And horses, as well as humans, are family members. Don’t believe me? Ask Martine Bellocq or Joe Herrick, both severely burned rescuing horses from the flames. The former, at this writing, emerged from an induced coma still is in serious condition, the latter awaits skin grafts.

I’m not surprised. That’s what you do for family.

Now, I guarantee you, I’m no Pollyanna. I’ve seen the best and worst of the clan and I can tell you, without a doubt, that the former outruns the latter by the length of the grandstand!

Mother Nature can be a real bitch. ‘Nasty side up’ often this year. In her wake she’s left many dead, injured, homeless and miserable. Throughout there have been nameless, faceless, selfless heroes. I’m proud to announce that my racing family rose to the challenge. They responded with action, courage, thoughts, prayers, goods, services and money.

Thank you.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: I’m Not Surprised

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