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Racing community has its own bucket brigade

Of all the generous donations descending upon Del Mar in the wake of the San Luis Rey Downs fire evacuation, few rang with more of a sense of pure community than the van load of stable supplies that pulled up to the backstretch recreation room late last Tuesday afternoon.

From Thoroughbred trainers … in Florida.

By now, the outpouring of support for the people and stables displaced by the fire of Dec. 7 has become institutionalized. So much has been contributed -- clothing, appliances, equipment, food, money, and more -- that the backstretch community will be able to pass on a lot of items to charitable organizations in the wider world. Talk about paying it forward.

On Friday, the California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation began distributing emergency cash to backstretch employees now working at Del Mar, drawn from the more than $600,000 already received in a GoFundMe account set up by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and The Stronach Group, which owns San Luis Rey Downs. As everyone who pays attention is aware, cash is king among most of the backstretch community, and any amount squirreled away beneath a mattress in a tack room was wiped out by the blaze.

It was all hands on deck when the van arrived with the Florida shipment. By the time it arrived, there were rumors that it would contain everything from the leftover golden halters worn by Chad Brown's turf mares to a few of Todd Pletcher's overflow Eclipse Awards that could be used for doorstops or paperweights.

In practical terms, there were bits, bridles, halters, buckets, webbings, cross bars, wall ties, shanks and chains, bandages, helmets, and more buckets. The shipment was compiled under the direction of Sarah Campion, one of Mark Casse's assistant trainers, who has traveled to California with the stable's runners and was able to put faces to many of the names who were caught in the devastation of the fire.

"I got the idea Sunday morning and started sending out messages on social media," Campion said. "Word got out from there. We collected things from Palm Meadows, Palm Beach Downs, Payson Park, and Gulfstream Park. Nobody said no. Everybody gave something. Everybody wanted to help, and they gave what they could, whether it was a whole box of halters or just some cotton and some extra bandages."

"Everybody," in this case, was not an exaggeration. For the record, here is Campion's list of the stables, trainers, and assorted businesses that donated to the effort:

Roger Attfield, Christophe Clement, Josie Carroll, Bill Mott, Todd Boston, Jeremiah Englehart, John Kimmel, Kiaran McLaughlin, Rusty Arnold, Ian Wilkes, Vicki and Phil Oliver, Graham Motion, Eddie Kenneally, Chad Brown, Sagamore Racing, Todd Pletcher, Mark Casse, Sallee Horse Vans, Brookledge Vans, Tex Sutton, Yarbrough & Rabenstein, and the polo and hunter jumper barns in Wellington.

"When we got it all packaged together and ready to go, it was pretty amazing," Campion said. "I called the Sutton people and told them it would be a little more on the flight than I first thought, they said no problem. It was on the plane Tuesday."

Campion has been with the Casse stable for five years, working most recently with the Norman Casse division in Kentucky.

"As an assistant, my mentality is to help where I can, whether it's my boss or people in the barn," Campion said. "But having spent time in California and knowing people there, we just felt so helpless. We just wanted to do something. When something terrible like this happens, we all feel it in the racetrack community. I mean, the money donated is great, but we wanted to do something for the smaller barns who need stuff right away.

"As horse people, I was thinking about the barn essentials trainers need to carry on, to make it through the day," Campion said. "A cross bar, a wall tie - anything so that they can kick on. What it turned into was just amazing."

Campion and her Casse crew felt they had a personal stake in the resupply effort as well. Two of their horses owned by Gary Barber -- Conquest Tsunami and Spectre Bond -- had been transferred to the Barber string with the Peter Miller stable evacuated from burning barns San Luis Rey.

"It was another reason why I was kind of emotional about the whole thing," Campion said. "When we found out they were okay I thought, 'Now what can we do for the others.'

"If we had more time we could have sent a lot more," Campion added. "I'm just glad we were able to do what we could."

What they did won't soon be forgotten.

As night fell last Tuesday and the excitement over the Florida shipment settled back into the reality of its need, the aroma of grilled chicken filled the air near the racing office/kitchen complex and the displaced stablehands, still setting up their temporary lives at Del Mar, gathered near an impromptu Christmas tree decorated by owner Bing Bush and his merry band of helpers.

It was a Taco Tuesday like no other.

Carlos Ballesteros and his Gringas Catering ("Smells Good, Tastes Even Better") were on the scene, donating their wares to a grateful 75 or so who queued up to the counter and came away with tacos to die for.

"It's a family recipe," Ballesteros said. "We're happy to help. You like them?"

We like.