Just minutes after Santa Anita Park hosted a touching tribute to the 46 horses lost in a devastating wildfire that swept through San Luis Rey training center in California, a trainer who lost two promising thoroughbreds found a little bit of solace with his first stakes win since the blaze.
“I really think the whole barn needed a pick-me-up like this,” trainer Philip D’Amato said after Bowies Hero won the $200,000 Grade 2 Mathis Brothers Mile on turf Tuesday at the Arcadia track by a half-length over Kroy, with favored Big Score back in third. “… To win a race like this a couple of weeks from that, it’s just a really good pick-me-up,” the trainer said of the aftermath of the fire.
He recalled the scene on Dec. 7 at San Luis Rey — in northern San Diego County’s Bonsall — as literally like a war zone.
“I was on the grounds there with all of my staff trying to save not just my horses but everyone’s horses as were the many horsemen there … Fire on either side of you, horses just kind of waiting for help, for us to get them and take them to safety, (and) a lot of courageous people that day,” the trainer said, noting that the fire was “by far” the worst thing he had ever seen.
D’Amato lost the unraced 2-year-old colt Oddsmaker and the 4-year-old filly Riri, both owned by Little Red Feather Racing, and said he still gets choked up when he thinks about what happened.
“This is like these are our family members any way you look at it. This is our livelihood and to lose these horses it’s really like losing part of your family,” he said. “You know from us trainers all the way to the owners and the help, it’s just devastating … It’ll take a while, but, you know, it’s just like anything. We’re resilient and so is the sport.”
D’Amato lauded the community for quickly moving to aid those affected by the fire, saying it was “heartening that the community rallied behind us.”
A GoFundMe account established by Santa Anita, its parent company The Stronach Group and Del Mar raised more than $600,000 within about a week for victims of the Lilac Fire, and donors volunteered their time, money and supplies to aid horses and those who work with them after they were evacuated from the facility to sites including neighboring farms and the Del Mar racetrack.
As for Bowies Hero, D’Amato said that “he kicked off the end of the year in the right way for us” with the first graded stakes victory for the 3-year-old bay colt out of Artie Schiller.
Bowies Hero — who now has five wins in 11 career starts — paid $8.80 to win, $5 to place and $3.20 to show and completed the one-mile race in 1:33:46.
“I just am very proud of this horse. He’s been a true campaigner. He’s fought in all the big fights,” D’Amato said.
In other races at Santa Anita Tuesday:
— Giant Expectations — the longest shot in the field at 13 1/2-1 — won the $300,000 Grade 2 San Antonio by 3 1/4 lengths over Accelerate, with the heavily favored Collected another neck behind in third in his prep race for next month’s Pegasus.
“… It was this colt’s first Grade 1 win, but it won’t be his last,” jockey Gary Stevens said.
“The race was won going into that first turn. It was over with,” the Hall of Fame jockey said of Giant Expectations being out on the lead. “Obviously I knew he (Collected) was behind me. I didn’t care who was laying second, who was laying third. The fractions were very soft for these kind of Grade 1 horses.”
It marked the fourth win in 12 starts for the Peter Eurton trainee, who battled respiratory problems that caused him to spend nearly a year away from the races.
One of Giant Expectations’ owners, Justin Border, said the colt’s connections decided they need to take “big swings” when the opportunities arise.
“That’s what we felt like this was. It worked out this time,” he said.
Giant Expectations paid $29 to win, $8.20 to place and $3.20 to show.
— Unique Bella scored her first Grade 1 victory in the $300,000 Grade 1 La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, returning to the promising form she had shown earlier in the year before a sub-par seventh-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint last month at Del Mar.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said he and jockey Mike Smith concluded that she might have gone too fast in the Breeders’ Cup and “learned from that” and let her lay off the pace.
“He had a lot of horse. He went wide and kept her clear,” Hollendorfer said of Smith’s ride aboard the gray/roan daughter of the stallion Tapit and the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic champion Unrivaled Belle.
Unique Bella went off as the favorite and paid $4.60 to win, $2.80 to place and $2.60 to show. She now has six wins in eight starts.
Another promising filly, Santa Anita Oaks winner and Breeders’ Cup Distaff third-place finisher Paradise Woods, finished three-quarters of a length back in second after a duel in the stretch with Unique Bella. Longshot Mopotism finished in third.
— Also getting his first Grade 1 win was the lightly raced 3-year-old colt City of Light, who began his racing career in July and now has two wins and three seconds in five starts.
“I appreciate everybody letting us take our time with this horse … It all worked out in the end,” trainer Michael McCarthy said of the colt he said he’s had faith in since spotting him at the Keeneland September 2015 sale, where the son of Quality Road sold for $710,000.
“Obviously we like winning any race, but a big race like this, (a) prestigious race like this means a lot to us. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the good end of a lot of great days working for Todd Pletcher. To come out here and do it on our own with our own team is really good,” McCarthy told reporters shortly after the race, which was City of Light’s first stakes race.
The trainer said he wasn’t sure which race will be next for City of Light, but he had plans for himself — a glass of champagne to celebrate.
Terri Vermeulen Keith is an award-winning journalist with a passion for horse racing. Her favorite horse is and probably always will be 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull. Her family vacations usually include a trip to the horse races or a horse farm