Hours after surveying the Lilac fire’s grim fallout in Del Mar, Michelle Storm took to Facebook.
In the three days since the blaze tore through San Luis Rey Downs—killing nearly 50 horses on Dec. 7 and displacing the training facility’s live-in workers—Del Mar Racetrack had become a makeshift sanctuary for more than 800 horses and some 200 groomsmen.
The daughter of longtime Rancho Santa Fe residents Sue and Gordy Bartow, Storm had grown up showing quarter horses, attuned from childhood to the bond between horses and the workers who spend their lives caring for them.
So, aisle by aisle, stall by stall, she sought out as many groomsmen as she could find at Del Mar on Dec. 10, her second-hand Spanish and their broken English piecing together a dire cause-and-effect. Most of San Luis Rey’s workers had been living in trailers or small rooms in close proximity to their equine charges. When San Luis Rey burned, so did their homes and their livelihood.
At Del Mar, they were safe but destitute.
“There were guys sleeping on the floor of the barns. There were guys with nothing but flip-flops,” Storm recalled recently.
One at a time, she made careful note of what the 32 groomsmen she talked to that day needed. Then she went live on Facebook to deliver a somber rallying cry. While the evacuated horses were being lavished with attention, she explained, their caretakers lacked even the basic essentials, foremost being boots and jeans they needed to get back to work.
“Let’s figure this out,” Storm said as she ended her 10-minute broadcast. “Let’s help these people, because no one else is. I’ve got to do it. It’s just what I do.”
The video amassed thousands of views. Donations came pouring in—the boots and jeans she called for but also mini-fridges, microwaves, portable closets. She started a Facebook page to document her frequent visits to Del Mar and update followers on the workers’ ever-changing needs. Over the ensuing month, Storm helped gather around $50,000 worth of equipment and supplies.
“I made it my mission to take care of those 32 workers, and we ended up taking care of 100,” she said.
In so doing, some of the trainers at Del Mar took notice. Among them was Julie Krone—the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race—who connected her with Angie Stevens, wife of legendary jockey Gary Stevens. With their guidance, Storm learned that when the fires broke out, the desperate rush to rescue horses left no time to salvage saddles, bridles and other equipment—known collectively as “tack” in horseracing parlance.
More than two months later, a dozen trainers still lack the equipment they need. There are racehorses training with borrowed dressage bridles. One of the trainers has had to exercise his four horses one at a time, alternating a single saddle. Another trainer’s horses survived the fire but were so injured that they can’t race for six months.
“One thing I learned about the racehorse industry is that trainers don’t actually get paid until the race is won,” Storm said. “Some trainers have really good owners who will write them a check and take care of them. Others not so much. And some of these guys are owner-trainers who are barely getting by. They very much live one race paycheck to the next.”
Storm’s new focus: to raise $13,000—enough to provide tack and get a dozen trainers back on their feet.
Angie Stevens’s name power and connections have facilitated a flush of donations—saddles and safety vests from Phoenix Performance Gear, helmets from Charles Owen. But with the fire having long faded from public attention, Storm is finding it harder to raise funds, in part due to misconceptions about the economics of horseracing Sport of Kings.
“People assume that with horseracing there’s tons of money involved,” Storm said. “San Luis Rey does have some really big trainers, but a lot of them are what you could call your minor leagues, the guys who are just trying to catch a break.”
She’s hoping that a new campaign in partnership with photographer Michael Coy will renew the public’s interest.
The night of the fire, Coy and his wife evacuated their Bonsall home—barely a mile east of San Luis Rey—eventually taking shelter with her parents in Murietta. Coy found their home spared the next morning, but knew there would be so many others in need of help.
He scoured through Facebook in search of people mobilizing, and found Storm’s video from Dec. 10. Even with a lineage that dates back three centuries in Idaho horse country—“I come from a bloodline of cowboys and ranchers,” he said—Coy was taken aback to hear that so many trainers and workers were in such dire straits.
Coy offered to create his trademark portraits—“magical dream portraits” enhanced by his digital wizardry—for a $150 donation to Storm’s campaign. Each donor gets a one-hour photo session and a 14 x 11 marquee, more than $1,000 in value.
The first of those portraits, he gave away. Trainer Dan Dunham was with his wife at the inferno, frantically trying to save their 25 horses. Two perished. Their barn was reduced to tinder. Much of their tack melted completely; the rest rendered useless. Moved by their plight, Coy made a portrait of their daughter Maddy in her hunter-jumper outfit.
“Michelle’s passion is amazing,” Coy said. “But as much as she’s been pushing it, most people assume that everything is back to normal, which is not the case. I just want to help out any way I can. As long as it takes.”
Long after the swarm of volunteers had gone home, long after the glare of media attention dimmed to nearly nothing, long after other fundraising campaigns cut their checks and packed up, Storm refuses to flag or falter. She still visits Del Mar several times a week to spend time with the groomsmen, trainers and other “backside workers.”
They call her their angel.
Despite the frustrating downturn in donations, she has no intention of stopping. Even after April 1—when San Luis Rey’s owners have vowed to reopen—the need will remain.
“I’m just forging ahead,” Storm said.
Learn more about Storm’s fundraising on the Facebook page Project San Luis Downs Grooms & Workers. To arrange a portrait, call Michael Coy at 858-342-9281.