Trainer Peter Miller called it the worst three days of his life.
The fire that swept through the San Luis Rey Downs thoroughbred training center in Bonsall, CA, left nearly 50 horses dead – five of them stabled with Miller. Dozens of others who had been set free from their stalls by men and women who risked their own lives ran wild in the area.
“It was a living nightmare,” said Miller. “Surreal. I went from being in the middle of the fire with horses running around to total chaos. I probably had 20 horses, at least, that were missing. It was crazy, to say the least, to try and find the missing horses and ID them.”
One of the missing was Belvoir Bay, a 4-year-old graded stakes winner that had become a personal favorite of Miller’s. “Nine-hundred pounds soaking wet, and it’s all heart,” the trainer would say of the Equiano filly who came to North America for Team Valor and Gary Barber as a 2-year-old after racing five times in her native England.
Farms and training centres in and around Bonsall that had escaped the fire rescued many of the missing horses.
“We were running around to different farms in the area,” Miller said. “I would go with a legal pad and pen, take IDs, markings and check lip tattoos. Racetrack personnel were helping too, and I got a call from someone saying they think they’d found Belvoir Bay.”
The identification was confirmed, but Belvoir Bay was among the walking wounded.
“She had big lacerations and burns on her legs,” Miller said, “and her hock was blown up and infected. We sent her over to the clinic for hyperbaric oxygen therapy and she was on antibiotics for a couple of weeks.”
Less than four months later, Belvoir Bay miraculously returned to the races at Santa Anita, starting a three-race winning streak that continued until June 2018 at Woodbine, when she finished fifth in the Grade 1 Highlander Stakes.
After a narrow loss at Keeneland, Belvoir Bay was given a brief freshening before returning for an ambitious 2019 that included a strong second-place finish to European ace sprinter Blue Prize in the Grade 1 Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai. Her year culminated with a stirring front-running victory over males on Nov. 2 in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita. The victory gave trainer Miller his third consecutive victory in the race, following Stormy Liberal’s back-to-back wins in 2017-18.
“It was probably the most emotional of my five (Breeders’ Cup) wins,” Miller said. “She means so much to me. Physically, she’s small, but she’s built like a fullback – very powerful – and she just kept improving as a racehorse. Then there’s her personality. And to think about everything she went through with the fire. Gary Barber (who bought out Team Valor when Belvoir Bay went through the sale ring at the 2018 Fasig-Tipton fall mixed sale) has been with me longer than any other owner, so that meant a lot.
“I was pretty overwhelmed after this one.”
The Turf Sprint, inaugurated in 2008, will never be one of the marquee races for the Breeders’ Cup, and the 2019 championship race winners may all have been overshadowed by the tragedy that unfolded at the top of the stretch in the Classic, when Mongolian Groom suffered a fatal injury just as Vino Rosso was making a powerful move en route to his victory.
But Belvoir Bay’s win was good for the soul, and not just for those most closely connected to her. Out of the ashes of that tragic December fire two years ago came an inspirational story of survival. She may have been carrying Gary Barber’s pink silks into the Santa Anita winner’s circle, but she was running for many others who came together in the wake of the San Luis Rey Downs fire. They volunteered their time, donated tack, feed and equipment to help those horsemen who lost everything they had and nursed horses like Belvoir Bay back to good health.
Belvoir Bay sold for $1.5 million as a broodmare prospect three days later at the Fasig-Tipton mixed sale in Kentucky.
“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” Miller said. “Special and fast.”