A San Diego horse trainer ran through a wall of flames to rescue his prized filly as a wildfire raced through the barn earlier this month, killing six of his horses.
Arms still bandaged, Joe Herrick visited Lovely Finish in her stable Wednesday. Both have visible scars from their near-death experience in the Lilac Fire.
Flames swept across the North County on Dec. 7, destroying more than 100 homes and scorching 4,100 acres.
Herrick ran towards the flames at San Luis Rey Downs, a training center in Bonsall. He was desperate to save his horses including Lovely Finish.
In the incredible heat, Herrick’s horse trailer caught on fire. In a matter of seconds, the barn caught fire.
“It was just a like a hurricane of fire, wind and debris just blowing into the barn,” Herrick said, describing how the lower barns on the property were destroyed within 10 minutes.
“There were horses running wild, kicking each other,” he said. “It was just bedlam. It was crazy.”
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Herrick jumped into action, running to get horses out of the barn. One suddenly ran right back into the barn to her death, he said.
As he went to move Lovely Finish, they were hit by flames.
“We had a big fireball hit us as we were trying to get out of the stall,” Herrick said.
When the horse pushed her way out of the stall, he did his best to hang on.
In the process, the two suffered serious burns from the intense heat. Herrick describes feeling as if his shirt and hair were melting.
Once outside the barn, despite the urging of emergency personnel, Herrick refused to leave the area until his prized filly was safe with his groom.
“I knew with my injuries I was going to be in trouble for a while,” he said.
Herrick eventually went into the ambulance and on to the hospital where he was treated for severe burns.
“I was out in 12 days and I don’t need skin grafts,” he said. “I kind of feel like I’m a walking, talking miracle.”
Lovely Finish suffered burns on her chest, her face and her hip. She is far from having the strength and speed she displayed a month before the fire but she should make a full recovery.
Herrick regrets not saving all of his horses. Six died in the flames. It’s difficult for him to think about.
“I’ve been through a lot of fire but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Herrick said. “The palm trees just exploding like Roman candles and started throwing debris everywhere.”
Grooms, who attend to the horses, lost everything in the fire. Some of them went to Del Mar with just the shirts on their back, Herrick said. Donations from the community have meant so much to the victims, he added.
And the prayers. He believes they helped him recover so quickly.
At Del Mar, in her very first race, Lovely Finish galloped from behind to finish second place. If her determination has anything to do with it, it won’t be her last.
“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” Herrick said. “We’ll be tougher when we come back.”