Scars, visible and otherwise, begin to heal

Merry Christmas, I hope.

As the Christmas holiday approaches, Kevin Habell's staff of 14 has been hard at work at San Luis Rey Downs, cleaning the approximately 200 stalls that were evacuated but not burned in the fire of Dec. 7.

"Cleaning, painting, hauling the muck, and leveling all the stall floors," Habell said. "Making those stalls as perfect as we can for the day horses will be coming back."

Habell is also collecting estimates on the demolition of the barns that were burned, now barely standing as charred, skeletal reminders of that terrible Thursday.

Since that day, even as the ground still smoulders with layers of warm ash, Habell's people have been trying to put the nightmare to rest. For the past week, authorized visitors to the training center have been greeted at the stable gate with colored lights strung by head of security Hugo Lara in the shape of a Christmas tree. Donations of clothing and toys from local residents flooded the training center rec room.

"We usually have a big party for everyone stabled here," Habell said, referring to the annual holiday bash sponsored by Santa Anita, the California Thoroughbred Trainers, and the Gregson Foundation. "But they'll have that one at Del Mar where all the horses are, and our guys didn't really want to travel. So we'll have a smaller gathering here for all the families."

Every little bit helps, baby steps on the road to a recovery that has been partially paved by an incredible outpouring of generosity, in the form of goods, services, and cold, hard cash.

"You know what made a tremendous difference?" said Peter Miller, who had some 60 stalls burned and upward of 75 horses displaced, injured, or killed in the blaze. "It was that video shot by Leo Tapia. It had 14 million views the last time I looked. It's one thing to read about what happened, but when people actually see it, they're inspired to do something."

Tapia is the Miller stablehand whose YouTube video of horses being released from the burning barns went certifiably viral, with more than 15.2 million views as of midweek. As for the Miller barn, home of two Breeders' Cup winners, it has been reconstituted at Del Mar, minus a dozen casualties of the fire.

"Yeah, we're kind of getting back to normal," Miller said as he inspected the legs of a set heading to the track. "I mean, in many ways it's a real miracle that any of us are in business at all."

Of the top 10 West Coast trainers, Miller was the only one who housed his main string at San Luis Rey. (His "satellite" barn is at Santa Anita, where Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Roy H lives with assistant trainer Ruben Alvarado.) Only Jerry Hollendorfer and Doug O'Neill have run more horses than Miller this year in California.

As a stable of scale, with career-best purses of $7.3 million in 2017 earned for a variety of owners, the Miller operation will be able to rebound from the fire loss a little sooner than smaller operations with less of a financial cushion, as donated money is distributed.

No one, however, is immune to the emotional toll. The American Psychological Association addresses exactly what the people of San Luis Rey experienced, both during the fire and in the morbid aftermath.

"Losing a home can cause significant emotional distress," notes the APA web site. "You should not underestimate the challenge of evacuation, relocation, and rebuilding after a fire. It is common for people to experience several stages of adjustment including shock, anger, depression, and hopelessness. Ultimately, however, people can reach a stage of acceptance and become able to move beyond disbelief, bitterness, and sadness."

"I know my people are dealing with PTSD," Miller said. "Me too. Counselling has been available. But what has helped them tremendously is the amount of help people have offered. It's not like they were left to fend for themselves. That's made a difference."

Miller said he has seven horses at the San Luis Rey Equine Hospital who are recovering from a variety of burns, cuts, and leg injuries. There are another handful at Del Mar with minor injuries, jogging right now, being carefully watched. Then there are the five.

In all, 47 equine casualties have been blamed on the fire. They will be honored on Dec. 26 at Santa Anita, as part of the opening-day program. The five lost by Miller and his owners were the 3-year-old stakes winner California Diamond, the hard-knocking 6-year-old claimer Los Borrachos, the 3-year-old maiden filly Lizmeister, and the unstarted 2-year-old colts Amalfi Drive (by Flatter) and Doc Raj (by Candy Ride).

"I had my blacksmith with me, helping identify them," Miller said. "I was down on a knee, writing down lip tattoos, dreading who I'd find, when I got a call. They'd found our two best fillies, Surrender Now and War Heroine, and they were okay. I stayed on my knee for a while after that."

Last Sunday, in the first race on the final card of the Los Alamitos meet, the 2-year-old stakes-placed filly Family Girl won a maiden claimer for Ballena Vista Farm of Donald and Karen Cohn and the Peter Miller stable. She was not only the first horse Miller started after the fire. She was the first winner from a San Luis Rey barn that burned.

Okay then. Merry Christmas.