California wildfires: Peter Miller 'released 80 horses to save them'

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Wildfires devastate southern California

"We turned all 80 horses loose. That was their only chance of surviving the fire. There were hundreds of them and the fires were wild. It was mayhem."

Leading American horse trainer Peter Miller cannot allow himself to think too much about the events of 5 December. He fears if he did he would break down.

Week-long wildfires engulfed properties, businesses and landscapes on San Luis Rey Downs in Southern California. By the time they were extinguished, 46 horses had died and eight barns had been destroyed.

Five of the animals that fled for safety across Miller's training centre were unable to escape the flames, including multiple stakes winner California Diamond.

Miller "held off as long as he could" before releasing the horses. "It was a tough call. Our only chance was to get them out of the barn and onto the race track," he told BBC World Service's Sportshour.

Just four weeks earlier, he was celebrating his most successful day as a trainer when he earned his first two Breeders' Cup victories with Stormy Liberal and Roy H.

He insists such highs and lows are "the nature of the business" and opts to "find solace" instead in the "incredible" support from the racing community, with offers of facilities, money and sympathy.

"It's a rollercoaster," he said. "Just a month later, we're fighting for our horses' lives and the people's lives.

"You have to keep going and take care of the job in hand, which is to look after the injured horses."

The largest of the wildfires - known as the Thomas Fire - burned close to 150,000 acres to the north of Los Angeles - an area of land roughly the size of Chicago.

Peter Miller
Peter Miller enjoyed success in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last month with Roy H

'I had to tell people their horse had died'

The camp is already being rebuilt and many of the horses are back in training, albeit some are still receiving treatment.

However, Miller's own despair was compounded by having to break the grim news to the owners of the horses that could not be saved.

He says it was "beyond difficult" speaking to the families but, on reflection, concedes that the death toll could have been much higher.

"It's beyond difficult to tell someone they lost a horse they really love," he said. "I don't wish that upon anyone to have to make those phone calls.

"We're attached to these horses. I see them on a daily basis. It's been heart-wrenching to see some of them gone.

"Our guys were unscathed other than the mental difficulty this will bring on all of us."

Miller is providing counselling for his staff, who are "just trying to get back to normal", while none of the stable have been entered for the popular Southern California event at Los Alamitos in December.

The Thomas Fire burns along a hillside near Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017.
The Thomas fire in Ventura County swept across 180 square miles (466 sq km)

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