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Trainers rushed to save terrified horses as the Lilac Fire closed in

Horses that survived the Lilac Fire in their stalls are loaded onto a trailer in the early morning hours of December 8, 2017 near Bonsall, California.
Horses that survived the Lilac Fire in their stalls are loaded onto a trailer in the early morning hours of December 8, 2017 near Bonsall, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

A routine day at an elite training center for racehorses turned into terror and chaos when hundreds of thoroughbreds stampeded out of their stalls in a desperate attempt to flee the Lilac Fire as it set their barns ablaze.

Turned loose by their trainers in a last-ditch effort to save their lives, the huge, muscular animals, their eyes wide with fear, charged through thick smoke and past dancing flames.

A dead horse is seen in a stall at Rancho Padilla where 29 horses and numerous other animals were killed in the Creek Fire on December 6, 2017 near Sylmar, California.
A dead horse is seen in a stall at Rancho Padilla where 29 horses and numerous other animals were killed in the Creek Fire on December 6, 2017 near Sylmar, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

While hundreds made it to the safety of a nearby racetrack, others galloped in circles, unsure which way to run. Still others, too frightened to leave their paddocks, stayed there and died.

Workers at San Luis Rey Downs said an estimated 30 to 40 horses perished Thursday in the wildfire, which was still raging out of control north of San Diego on Friday. At least two stable workers were injured, and their conditions were not immediately known.

Dead horses lies in stalls at Rancho Padilla where 29 horses and numerous other animals died in the Creek Fire near Sylmar, California on December 6, 2017.
Dead horses lies in stalls at Rancho Padilla where 29 horses and numerous other animals died in the Creek Fire near Sylmar, California on December 6, 2017.
David McNew/Getty Images

At Rancho Padilla near Sylmar, California, 29 horses and numerous other animals were killed in the Creek Fire on Wednesday.

Trainers described a terrifying scene that erupted at the facility Thursday afternoon, recalling how only minutes after smelling smoke, they saw flames roaring down a nearby hillside.

"I was heading to my barn to drop my equipment off and I smell smoke," trainer Kim Marrs said Friday as she stood outside the still-smoldering facility. "Within two minutes, I look up the hill and you could just see it come up over the ridge."

A dead horse is seen in a stall at Rancho Padilla where 29 horses and numerous other animals died in the Creek Fire near Sylmar, California on December 6, 2017.
A dead horse is seen in a stall at Rancho Padilla where 29 horses and numerous other animals died in the Creek Fire near Sylmar, California on December 6, 2017.
David McNew/Getty Images

She and others tried to turn back the flames with hoses and fire extinguishers before firefighters arrived. But when embers from burning palm trees began igniting the roofs of barns, they realized they had no other alternative than to turn loose the approximately 450 horses stabled there.

"The next thing, there's a stampede of 100 horses coming through here," said Marrs, who was trying to lead one of the horses she trains, a 5-year-old named Spirit World, through a tunnel. "We almost got trampled to death."

At one of the center's many barns, video showed a group of trainers frantically tearing down a wooden fence and shouting at their horses to run.

One large black horse, its forelocks wrapped in white leggings, bolted toward safety but then spooked by the burning palm trees, turned and fled back toward its stable. Scores of others charged through thick smoke to safety.

When former KPCC reporter and Stephanie O'Neill was evacuating her own horses from a barn in Ojai, she said some horses were frightened and nervous. One of her horses usually runs away when she tries to put a halter on him, but this time, he put his head in the halter right away.

"They saw other horses leaving. They smelled the smoke," O'Neill said. "It’s like they knew they had to get out."

Arturo Castaneda climbs into a stall to collect horse shoes from his dead horse, Petacas, as fellow worker Anthony Martin looks on after 29 horses at Rancho Padilla died in the Creek Fire on December 6, 2017 near Sylmar, California.
Arturo Castaneda climbs into a stall to collect horse shoes from his dead horse, Petacas, as fellow worker Anthony Martin looks on after 29 horses at Rancho Padilla died in the Creek Fire on December 6, 2017 near Sylmar, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

Trainer Cliff Sise suffered burns on his chest and arm trying to get a 2-year-old filly named Scat Home Lady out of her stable. She wouldn't budge, and he said she burned to death there.

"She was one of my favorites," Sise said as he sat outside the facility.

Trainer Jerry Contreras said one of his best friends, a fellow trainer, was hospitalized.

"He was trying to get his horses out and was burned," Contreras said.

O'Neill says it was a challenge finding a place to relocate the horses in her area. Ventura County Fairgrounds, which was accepting large animals, filled up. O'Neill took her two horses to the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, but since the Thomas Fire started moving west towards Santa Barbara, she is starting to get anxious. 

"The horses are now in a spot that I’m not sure is safe anymore," O'Neill said.

In Lake View Terrace, locals walked horses to safer stables away from the Creek Fire.
In Lake View Terrace, locals walked horses to safer stables away from the Creek Fire.
Josie Huang/KPCC

 

 

 

At San Luis Rey Downs, the phone rang unanswered and the owners quickly barred outsiders from the sprawling facility.

It is Southern California's premier training center for thoroughbreds, with a competition-sized racetrack, a smaller one for training, numerous trails for horses to relax on and even a swimming pool for them to work out in.

Workers look at collapsed stalls at Rancho Padilla, where 29 horses died on December 6, 2017 in the Creek Fire near Sylmar, California.
Workers look at collapsed stalls at Rancho Padilla, where 29 horses died on December 6, 2017 in the Creek Fire near Sylmar, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

The center can house as many as 500 horses and states proudly on a sign out front that it is the "Home of Azeri," racing's U.S. Horse of the Year in 2002.

Other thoroughbreds that have trained there include Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand.

The facility sits among rolling hills, picturesque vineyards and farms down a winding, two-lane road just a few miles off busy Interstate 15, the main thoroughfare connecting Southern California to Las Vegas.

The horses that fled were quickly rounded up, and many were taken to the nearby Del Mar racetrack, where a veterinary center was set up for the injured.

The tragedy resulted in an outpouring of support from the racing community, with Southern California's Los Alamitos Race Course canceling its daytime thoroughbred program Friday out of respect.

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the Stronach Group, owners of San Luis Rey Downs, have set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for hospital and rehab costs.

Santa Anita racetrack officials in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia collected clothes and other items for stable workers who lost their possessions.

"I lost everything. Forty years. I lost all my tack, all my machines, my webbings. It was all burned. My whole livelihood. I feel like quitting," the 66-year-old Sise said.

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Rogers reported from Los Angeles. AP Racing Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this story.