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Race horses killed by Southern California wildfires

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SAN DIEGO — Approximately 25 race horses were killed when a wildfire engulfed about eight barns at a training center in northeast San Diego County, the California Horse Racing Board said. Other horses that were in surrounding pastures remained unaccounted for.

Nearly 500 horses were stabled at the San Luis Rey Downs training center in Bonsall when the fire erupted amid strong Santa Ana winds Thursday, and workers risked their lives to free horses from stalls and herd them into safer areas, a board statement said.

Horses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars who are usually carefully walked from place to place were simply set free and encouraged to run away as flames engulfed the center, which is just a few miles from where the fire broke out.

Mac McBride, who was working with the center’s trainers, said it was “total pandemonium when several hundred horses were cut loose.”

When it was safe to bring in horse vans, surviving horses were taken to Del Mar race track.

“There was so much smoke it was difficult to see,” said horse trainer Dan Durham, who got his 20 horses rounded up and was loading them into vans to be evacuated. “Some of the horses were turned loose so they could be safe. They were scattered around.”

San Luis Rey Downs is home to horses that run at Del Mar and other top-flight California tracks like Santa Anita Park. Doug O’Neill, whose horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup races, is among the trainers who keep at least part of their stable there.

The sign at the front calls it “Home of Azeri,” the now-retired mare who was the 2002 U.S. Horse of the Year who earned over $4 million in her career.

Los Alamitos Race Course, the track where Southern California’s rotating thoroughbred circuit is currently running, canceled all races Friday so that the racing community can mourn.

Horse trainer Scott Hansen said he knows some of the 30 horses he had at the facility were killed.

“I don’t know how many are living and how many are dead,” Hansen said. “I guess I’ll have to figure that out in the morning.” For now, he said he was concentrating on getting his horses that survived to evacuation centers.

Another trainer, Cliff Sise, told KFMB-TV that he saw about 10 horses die, including his own filly.

“It was dark, everything was hot and she wouldn’t come out. I opened the pen and tried to get behind her and get her out, and she wouldn’t get out,” Sise said. “She burned to death that quick.”

Native River gets wire-to-wire win in Cheltenham Gold Cup

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CHELTENHAM, England (AP) Native River delivered an exhibition in front-running to outlast favorite Might Bite in a thrilling duel to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Britain’s most prestigious jumps race, on Friday.

Ridden by champion jockey Richard Johnson, 5-1 shot Native River took the lead right from the start and was never passed in the race over 3 miles and 2 1/2 furlongs in front of a crowd of 70,000.

After they jumped the last fence, Native River and Might Bite were neck and neck, but Johnson got a kick out of the Colin Tizzard-trained horse on the uphill finish and Native River won by 4 1/2 lengths – a year after finishing third in the race.

For Johnson, it was a second victory in the Gold Cup – 18 years after his first on Looks Like Trouble.

“It’s been a long 18 years,” Johnson said. “To be honest, I was a passenger.

“The more I asked from him, the better he jumped.”

Might Bite’s handler, Nicky Henderson, was looking to become the first trainer to capture the Cheltenham Festival’s three signature races in the same year – the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase, and the Gold Cup.

It was Might Bite’s first defeat over fences, and Henderson said the heavy going didn’t do the horse any favors – especially against a rival who is a past winner of the Welsh National and the Hennessy Gold Cup

“It was the right thing to track Native River because no other horse got into the race, he had to be in the right place,” Henderson said of the 4-1 favorite.

“On better ground, stamina wouldn’t have been an issue. But in that ground you have to work so much harder. The winner is a Welsh National winner and the reason I’ve never won that race is because I can’t find horses that go in that ground.”

Native River won his owners 369,822 pounds ($515,000).

Anibale Fly, a 33-1 shot, was third.

Jockey Ruby Walsh to miss rest of Cheltenham Festival

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CHELTENHAM, England (AP) Jockey Ruby Walsh will miss the remainder of the Cheltenham Festival after aggravating a leg injury when falling off his horse during the RSA Insurance Novices’ chase on Wednesday.

Walsh, the most successful jockey in the festival’s history with 52 wins, had only recently returned to competition after a four-month layoff due to a broken leg. He was taken to a hospital for X-rays and his sister Jennifer said in a statement that “unfortunately he has aggravated a recent leg injury and will see his consultant in Dublin next week for further assessment.”

Walsh had been set to ride Killultagh Vic in Friday’s Gold Cup.

On Wednesday’s second day of the festival, Altior extended his unbeaten record over jumps to 13 in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Altior had a slow start eventually powered seven lengths clear of the Willie Mullins-trained Min.

It was also a good day for trainer Gordon Elliott who took home three wins, headlined by Samcro in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

The 8-11 favorite beat Black Op by two and three-quarter lengths.