In recognition of countless acts of heroism, bravery, and benevolence in the face of tragedy, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), Daily Racing Form, and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters (NTWAB) announced Jan. 12 that a Special Eclipse Award will be awarded to all responders who assisted in mitigating the year's worst racehorse-related disasters—the hurricane that left more than 800 Thoroughbreds stranded at Puerto Rico's Hipódromo Camarero in September and the wildfire that claimed 46 Thoroughbreds at Southern California's San Luis Rey training center in December.
Representatives of the Camarero and San Luis Rey relief efforts will be on hand to accept the Special Award at the 47th Annual Eclipse Awards dinner and ceremony Jan. 25, in the Sport of Kings Theatre at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. The Eclipse Awards are presented by Daily Racing Form, Breeders' Cup and The Stronach Group, and produced by the NTRA.
Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare Led Industry-Wide Response in Puerto Rico
Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico Sept. 20, a Wednesday, as a Category 4 storm with wind gusts up to 118 miles per hour. All 3.4 million residents lost power and nearly all communications networks were knocked out of service. Storm surge and flash flooding left entire towns trapped until military relief could reach them as much as 24 hours later. Scores of people were killed in the storm and hundreds more are believed to have died struggling in the months after.
Maria laid waste to the island's only sanctioned racetrack, Hipódromo Camarero, formerly known as El Comandante, where Bold Forbes debuted in 1975 before winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown the following season and where Puerto Rican natives Angel Cordero Jr. and John Velazquez rode early in their Hall of Fame careers. The grandstand was destroyed, with the winner's circle and clubhouse "in ruins," as track administrator Jose A. Maymó Azize said.
In stepped Kelley Stobie and Shelley Blodgett of Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare, the nonprofit organization with more than a decade of experience transitioning hundreds of racehorses from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for post-racing lives, both on the islands and back on the U.S. mainland.
By Monday, five days since Maria first made landfall, Stobie was still clearing access to horses who hadn't had any water.
"We were just trying to keep the horses hydrated," she said. "People didn't realize how bad it was going to be. Nobody had stored anything and those that did, had their roofs ripped off. There was no hay to be found so they would just give horses 10 pounds of grain with no water."
Stobie was able to call her CTA co-founder Blodgett, a racing fan and recently retired clinical psychologist in Wellington, Fla., who had helped re-home several horses from Puerto Rico to the U.S.
"I just started messaging various industry organizations," Blodgett said. "I wrote to Sue Finley (of Thoroughbred Daily News) and sent her pictures. When she published that letter it immediately got the attention of the industry and then the response came."
Among those that responded to Blodgett's plea were American Association of Equine Practitioners, Bonnie Heath Farm, Brook Ledge Horse Transportation, Cargill Animal Nutrition, MWI Animal Health, Purina Animal Nutrition, Ranch Aid, TFB Equine, Texas Equine Veterinary Association, The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, Thoroughbred Charities of America, and U.S. Equestrian Federation. Terry Finley and Vincent Viola, partners in Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner Always Dreaming, helped cut through bureaucratic red tape for the flights to be cleared.
Within two weeks a charter jet arrived in Puerto Rico with 20 tons of alfalfa, veterinary supplies, including fluids and penicillin, and two satellite phones. It was the first of three planeloads that would come bearing donations from individuals and industry organizations.
To date, 98 horses from the Camarero backside have been euthanized, nearly all from colic or laminitis. Track veterinarian Dr. Ricardo Loinaz has worked nonstop at the on-site equine hospital caring for those with serious injuries or requiring antibiotics. While nutritional needs have been addressed, most of the damaged barns remain unrepaired.
Stobie and Blodgett will attend the Eclipse Awards ceremony to accept the Special Eclipse Award on behalf of countless individuals that participated in the relief effort.
Horsemen Risked Lives for Their Horses at San Luis Rey
It started as a minor brush fire first spotted in the late morning of Dec. 7 in northwest San Diego County. Fanned by unusually strong Santa Ana winds, with gusts of more than 60 miles per hour, within 30 minutes the fire had consumed 50 acres. Within the next hour it spread to 500 acres. By early afternoon, the blaze had expanded westward to the San Luis Rey training center, where about 450 Thoroughbred racehorses were stabled.
As the fire encroached, horsemen did what they could to protect their barns, but the trainers, assistant trainers, foremen, and grooms on the scene faced agonizing decisions as the fire moved across the property in a scattershot fashion, from hillside to barn roof, sometimes by way of blazing palm trees, depending on where the windswept sparks might take. Do they leave the horses in their stalls a little longer, in case help arrives, or do they let them free to fend for themselves, despite the many risks of allowing animals that have been contained and supervised their entire lives to run wild? And how long should the humans even stay to care for these horses when their way out could be cut off?
Most of the horsemen stayed, risking their own well-being in hopes of saving their charges. When no other options were left, stall doors were opened and horses were pulled out, let loose to find their own way on the training track, the infield, or the burning barn area.
Leo Tapia, a groom for trainer Peter Miller, broadcast live video on Facebook that showed the horror as it unfolded. Tapia ran into one of his barns, unlatching stall guards and urging horses to flee, even as smoke consumed the shedrow and the 23-year-old Mexican choked for air.
"I was a little bit afraid, but I didn't let myself think about it," Tapia told Chelsea Hackbarth of Paulick Report. "I just felt like my heart wanted to get out of my chest. But I couldn't leave without helping my horses, and those of my friends."
Outside the barn, Tapia continued to document the scene as scores of frightened, loose horses ran in search of safety. The harrowing 10-minute video has more than 256,000 shares and 15 million views.
As reported by Jeremy Balan of BloodHorse this week, Martine Bellocq raced into her burning barn attempting to save an unraced 2-year-old, Wild Bill Hickory. The trainer suffered third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body and was unable to rescue the colt. Fellow trainer Manuel Calvario, stabled in the same barn with Bellocq, saw his neighbor engulfed in flames and snuffed them out with a blanket, perhaps saving her life. Pierre Bellocq Jr., who had been loading another of their horses onto a van, returned to find his wife slumped on the ground, still injured and crying for Wild Bill Hickory. Martine was airlifted to UC San Diego Medical Center, Hillcrest, and placed in a medically induced coma. She remains under significant sedation and can't speak.
Two additional horsemen suffered serious injuries—trainer Joe Herrick sustained second- and third-degree burns on his face, neck, arms, and hands while pulling 2-year-old filly Lovely Finish from his burning barn, and outrider Les Baker broke nine ribs and suffered facial lacerations when trampled by a fleeing herd.
Forty-six horses died from the fire, according to the California Horse Racing Board. Nine of San Luis Rey's 15 barns were destroyed.
About 250 horses from San Luis Rey were evacuated to Del Mar, which provided sanctuary to about 800 horses total. Others from San Luis Rey were either walked or vanned to surrounding farms, many by locals who rushed to the scene to lend a hand.
Early the next morning, after the 4,100-acre fire was controlled and survivors had been relocated, hundreds of volunteers arrived at Del Mar at 2 a.m. to fill water buckets and watch for colic. Many came bearing supplies for horses and barn workers. A GoFundMe site to raise money for the horsemen most severely impacted has raised more than $650,000, led by $50,000 from Spendthrift Farm of Southern California racing fixture B. Wayne Hughes (who also sent veterinary supplies and volunteers on a private plane from Kentucky) and five-digit donations from several prominent horsemen and industry groups.
As San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Bryce Miller put it, after surveying a room packed wall to wall with donated supplies from around the globe: "A fire led to a heartwarming flood."