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Southern California wildfire kills dozens of horses, workers say

Workers at San Luis Rey downs said an estimated 30 to 40 horses perished in a wildfire that engulfed about eight barns at their training centre north of San Diego.

Trainers rushed to save terrified horses as flames closed in

Terrified horses gallop from San Luis Rey Training Center as the Lilac Fire sweeps through the horse-training facility on Thursday, north of San Diego. (Paul Sisson/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

A routine day at an elite training centre for racehorses transformed into terror and chaos in minutes, with hundreds of thoroughbreds stampeding out of their stalls in a desperate attempt to flee a Southern California wildfire that 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.

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 the San Luis Rey Training Center, owned by the Aurora, Ont.,-based Stronach Group, said an estimated 30 to 40 horses perished Thursday in the wildfire, still raging out of control north of San Diego on Friday. At least two stable workers were injured, and their condition was not immediately known.

Terrifying scene

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-smouldering facility. "Within two minutes, I look up the hill and you could just see it come up over the ridge."

Fire swept through training centre as staff set herd loose 0:50

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 centre'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.

A helicopter prepares to make a water drop over the San Luis Rey Training Center, in Bonsall, Calif., Friday. (Amanda Lee Myers/Associated Press)

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 favourites," 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.

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 centre 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.

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

A sign out front of the San Luis Rey Training Center proudly states that it is the "Home of Azeri," racing's U.S. Horse of the Year in 2002. Azeri gallops over the main track at Arlington Racetrack in Arlington Heights, Ill., Oct.24, 2002. (Michael Burns/Canadian Press)

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 kilometres off busy Interstate 15, the main thoroughfare connecting Southern California to Las Vegas.

Horses rounded up

The horses that fled were quickly rounded up, and many were taken to the nearby Del Mar racetrack, where a veterinary centre 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 cancelling 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.

With files from CBC News