On December 7, 2017, horse trainer Joe Herrick said, “Hell came to town.” Herrick was was involved in trying to rescue 450 thoroughbred horses caught in the raging Lilac fire through Bonsall’s San Luis Rey Training Center. He lost six of his eight horses. The final death toll was 46 horses perished in the tragedy.
Horses in panic at San Luis Rey
Lilac fire, Dec. 7, 2017
On July 25, in Race #5 at the Del Mar track, Herrick appeared to the racing public for the first time since he suffered second degree burns over 23 percent of his body, with the running of one of his horses, Achieved. (Achieved was not at the training center during the fire.)
After the fire, Herrick spent 12 days in the UCSD Burn Unit. “I’m still healing,” he told me, as he walked around the Paddock with his horse, along with jockey Diego Sanchez. “But I’m feeling great today.”
Herrick had left the property when the Bonsall fire started up canyon, near I-15, around 11 am. They had watered everything down. “What we didn’t count on was the 80–100-foot palm trees being lit up like Roman candles, shooting flames in 60 mph winds.”
They retuned to the property around 2:00 p.m. to try to release the horses from the burning buildings. Having already received burns on his hands, face, back, and head, he watered himself down with a hose, he went back in to rescue more horses.
One of his own horses, he pulled out of a burning stable. Then the horse bolted and ran back into the stall to perish. “The stall is their security,” explained Herrick. In the wild, animals’ running back into a fire are usually in shock.
During an after-race interview trackside, he couldn’t recall some of his horses' names that perished. Herrick said his memory was a little foggy over exactly what happened during the incident.
“All I really remember is being in the burn center with my eyes swollen shut,” said Herrick. “They [doctors] said I’d have to have be there for months and get skin graphs.”
“The scar tissue wants to contract,” said Herrick. He makes his right hand into a fist, to keep the skin flexible.
Herrick was one of two that were injured in the December fire. Fellow horsewoman Martine Bellocq is still in the hospital. “She may never fully recover,” Herrick said.
Though Herrick’s horse, Achieved, came in last in a field of eight, jockey Diego Sanchez seemed proud to be riding for Herrick, celebrating Herrick’s recovery.