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About 400 thoroughbreds displaced by Lilac fire are returning to San Luis Rey Training Center

About 400 thoroughbreds displaced by Lilac fire are returning to San Luis Rey Training Center
The San Luis Rey Training Center recently reopened with close to 200 horses returning to their stables. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

More than four months after the Lilac fire raced through Bonsall and into the San Luis Rey Training Center, the thoroughbred horses that were evacuated to the Del Mar Fairgrounds are returning home.

By the end of this weekend, all or almost all of the 410 horses that have been stabled and trained at the racetrack facility since the Dec. 7 fire will have been brought back to new, temporary stables or to refurbished older stables that withstood the blaze.

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Forty-six thoroughbreds were killed in the fire after many were released from their barns to fend for themselves as the wind-driven flames overwhelmed the facility. In the weeks after the blaze, it was unclear what the fate of the training center and the hundreds of people who worked there might be.

But the facility — owned and operated by the Stronach Group, which includes Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields among its racing holdings — has moved forward in restoring the center's viability as a training center.

About 200 horses already have returned, said the training center's general manager, Kevin Habell. The rest hopefully will arrive by Sunday.

"But it's a work in progress," Habell said.

Accompanying the horses will be roughly 250 licensed assistant trainers, grooms and stable hands working for 21 trainers who also had taken up post-fire residence at Del Mar.

Habell said all are eager to get back home to the facility, which is about 35 miles northeast of the seaside track.

"They all love the place and can't wait to get back," Habell said.

The horses needed to be gone from Del Mar this month because the stables are needed for other things.

"They were the fastest barns we could get up in the time that we had," Habell said. "We'll look to do permanents down the road, but right now, these are considered temporary stabling."

The barns that survived the blaze have new metal roofs and have been pressure-washed to remove the smell of soot, he said. The older barns also have a new coat of paint, and landscaping throughout the facility has been replaced.

"We got rid of all those palm trees everybody hated," Habell said. "They didn't start the fire, but they didn't help."

The fire destroyed seven barns and damaged an eighth at the 240-acre San Luis Rey site.

Several GoFundMe pages sprang up online soon after the blaze, one raising more than $600,000 in a matter of days.

"The amount of support we received from people locally, nationally, internationally was overwhelming," said David Jerkens, the racing secretary of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

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Jones writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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