Officials at the San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall are getting ready to welcome back horses in early February.
Kevin Habell, general manager of the training center that had eight of its barns destroyed in the Dec. 7 Lilac fire, said demolition and cleanup of those barns was expected to be completed by the end of January.
Six barns that were not burned in the firestorm have been cleaned up and can accommodate 200 horses. Although those barns have been ready for occupancy for a while, Habell and officials of The Stronach Group, which owns San Luis Rey, didn’t want to open the training center until the cleanup was completed.
“We still have a few things we have to finish up before we bring in horses,” Habell said Jan. 22. “We want to make sure the demolition is done and all those reminders (of the fire) are gone before we bring someone in.”
Forty-six horses stabled at the training center died in the Lilac fire, however, more than 400 survived thanks to the brave efforts of those working at the facility, firefighters and community volunteers who transported horses to safety.
The Del Mar fairgrounds has housed most of the San Luis Rey horses since the fire, and as of Jan. 23, there were 370 thoroughbreds stabled at the seaside racetrack, according to Del Mar racing secretary David Jerkens.
“That number will probably start to grow because 2-year-olds start to arrive now,” Jerkens said. “A lot of trainers bring in their 2-year-olds in February and March.”
Jerkens said that Del Mar can continue to be used as a training center until April 13 but added that the training schedule may be shortened in late March and April due to previously scheduled events at the fairgrounds such as the Del Mar National Horse Show.
“We can be open until April 13, but it would ideal if San Luis Rey is back to operable with the numbers it had before the fire by the end of March,” Jerkens said.
Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, said temporary barns should be in place at San Luis Rey in time to meet the stabling demand.
“That’s the fastest and easiest way to get the place up and operating (at full capacity),” Ritvo said of putting up temporary barns. “Then we have to make a decision on how we move forward for permanents.”
The Stronach Group owns racetracks throughout the U.S., including Santa Anita in Arcadia and Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida. Ritvo said stabling in California is a big issue, and that’s why the San Luis Rey Training Center plays an important role in Southern California racing.
“Stabling is always a struggle in Southern California, where property values are so high,” Ritvo said. “Unlike Florida, where we have Ocala (home to many training centers) and thousands of horses in training that we can draw upon, we don’t have that in Southern California because of property values.”
“We’re moving forward, that’s for sure, so it’s a lot better feeling now days,” Habell said.