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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.”

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.