Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Heroes Of The San Luis Rey Downs Fire

As with most tragedies there are examples of courage that flash to the surface in split seconds when all seems lost, when circumstances overwhelm, when seemingly ordinary people become super human and accomplish the impossible.

Some are born heroes; some are born on the spot. No amount of training or preparation can predict who will emerge as a hero until the time comes. Airline pilot Capt. Chesley Sullenberger was a hero that was well trained and experienced. When thrown in the crucible, he did the right thing. The proper course of action is not always apparent in an emergency. Decision-making is split second and miscalculations unforgiving.

There is no doubt the conflagration that occurred at San Luis Rey Downs on Dec. 7, 2017, was such an occasion — a time when ordinary souls, forged by fire, accomplished feats beyond mortal expectations.

While I have no doubt there were numerous feats of selfless heroism that occurred as the Armageddon of San Luis Rey Downs unfolded, I am compelled to note one such story of which I have personal knowledge.

Casandra Branick, checking paperwork, while watching over two goats saved from the fire

The barn of Edward Freeman was one of the first to be destroyed by fire. Mr. Freeman was away on a family visit to his native England. He departed comfortable in the knowledge his barn was in the good care of barn manager and exercise rider Casandra Branick.

Like on most mornings, Casandra woke at 4 a.m. and arrived at the Freeman barn a short time later to oversee a crew of eight grooms as they fed, watered, trained and exercised 17 Thoroughbred racehorses. Another was at an equine clinic.

What began as a normal day soon turned horrible beyond imagination. Shortly after 11 a.m., Branick noticed telltale signs of fire on the hilltops to the east. Acting quickly, she alerted her crew and began tranquilizing her charges in anticipation of an evacuation. She ordered bales of hay be watered down and began loading feed and water tubs on the van. Contacting Freeman in England, she recommended evacuating the horses. Freeman concurred and advised his owners of the situation and vowed to take responsibility for the potentially hazardous decision.

With a green light from her boss, Branick began loading her charges. She sent the first load to Del Mar racetrack before anyone there knew of the emergency. She even had the foresight to send ulcer medication in case it was needed.

This was only the beginning of a long day that would not end for another 30 hours. As the day progressed, Branick was able to load her remaining horses on various vans throughout the afternoon.

Groom Carlos Osuna stayed behind to help at San Luis Rey Downs after the Freeman horses were safely evacuated to Del Mar

Some of these animals were, by nature, high strung and difficult to deal with. The fact she was able to coerce them onto vans that they were clearly resistant to entering is amazing enough. That this was accomplished without the benefit of lip-chains or lead ropes and in one case with only a leather belt is simply miraculous.

It should be noted at this point that three of Mr. Freeman’s grooms, not unlike Cas, battled the entire day from start to finish without concern for their personal safety or belongings. These brave horsemen passed the point where reason ends and courage begins many long hours before. They are Silvano Vaca, Carlos Osuna and Martin Espinosa. People such as these restore one’s faith in humankind. They were drawn by a calling stronger than the urge for self-preservation. Their duty was to the horses they loved and cared for.

With her horses dispersed to three locations, Branick turned to save her goat and another from a neighboring barn. As she exited the track, the police laughed at the two frightened animals squealing in the back seat.

Grooms from the Edward Freeman stable

With the goats delivered to safety, Branick attempted to return to the track but was blocked by law enforcement. Noticing a veterinarian on foot attempting to gain access to the track, this dynamo from New Jersey once again took charge. Instructing the vet to get in, she drove her car up on the median and managed to enter the facility where numerous injured horses were then humanely euthanized.

Returning to the horror of stampeding horses, some on fire, Cas Branick proceeded to render assistance to others. She helped load horses with the aid of fallen palm fronds. The barn directly behind her lost at least three horses and a trainer who suffered severe burns trying to save them and was airlifted to a hospital where she placed in a medically induced coma.

Edward Freeman barn at San Luis Rey Downs

My second-hand telling of these feats, no doubt leaves much untold. But what I do know is that the two horses I own in partnership with Edward Freeman are alive and well. As day turned to night Casandra Branick never stopped. Speaking to her through the night and into the next morning I know she attempted to provide clothing and comfort to her grooms – all of whom lost every earthly possession to the fire. They were without money, documents and clothing. She, herself was without money or medication.

As she attempted to leave the area later that night, Casandra was met with roadblocks. Eventually, she was able to return to her home and for the first time get something to drink. Despite my admonishment to go to bed, she once again set out to inventory her horses at various locations in the area.

I have no doubt my narrative does little justice to the “rest of the story” as radio broadcaster Paul Harvey would have said, but I know enough! As a veteran and retired airline pilot, if I had to choose someone to go battle with it would be this 95-pound package of dynamite that looks at fear with contempt and the impossible as just a momentary speed bump.

Click here for more information on how you can help those impacted by the San Luis Rey Downs Fire.

Dennis Miller is a Thoroughbred owner in California who also served as vice president of the Arizona Thorougbred Breeders Association. He helped found the CANTER Arizona affiliate in 2011.

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