Thomas Calabrese … Tess Overton rolled over in her bed, opened her eyes and saw the clock on her nightstand; it was 3:45am. Her alarm was set for 4am, but she had been getting up early for so long that she always awakened before it had a chance to ring. She had intended to become a veterinarian, but her father became ill when she was in her second year at the University of California, Davis Veterinary School. At first, Tess only intended to take the fall quarter off to help her mother then return to her studies in the spring, but her father’s illness progressively got worse and after two years he passed away. After considerable deliberation and a thorough examination of the family’s financial situation, Tess came to the harsh realization that she would not be able to return to school.
It was difficult for Tess to accept at first, but she was a strong and resilient young woman who remembered one of the last things that her father told her from his death bed; Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.
Tess found a job at the San Luis Rey Downs horse training center in Bonsall, California with Ben Rooney, a former jockey turned trainer. Ben had a small operation and seldom had more than three horses in his stable at any one time. The owners were usually people who thought their animals might have some potential, but didn’t want to invest a lot of money to find out.
It was a double edged sword for the amiable and good hearted man because if the horses were not competitive on the track, the owners would eventually take them back to their farm or ranch and if they were successful and won a few races, the owners would find a higher profile trainer. Tess had been with Ben for three years and in the beginning she tried to change how he conducted his business, but it wasn’t in his nature to be overly aggressive or ambitious. Tess accepted Ben for the honorable man that he was and looked for common ground where they could work together and that agreeable place was that they both loved horses. Ben was most comfortable when he was in the track environment, so he lived in an old motorhome at the back of the San Luis Rey Downs property and only on rare occasions did he leave the area.
Rooney Training Inc. was bare bones and no frills; Aristeo Barron was the groom, Tess was the exercise rider, hot walker and also handled the paperwork and Ben was the trainer. Tess was at the track from 5am to 9am, took a three hour nap, showered and then drove to her second job at Starbucks in Fallbrook and worked from 1pm to 7pm to supplement her income. Her current schedule was seven mornings a week at the track and five days at the coffee shop. How long could she keep this up, Tess tried not to think that far ahead.
The three horses in the Rooney stables at this time were; Dazzling Debutante, a chestnut mare, Clever Boy, a roan colt and Wildfire, a black stallion with white markings below the knees and a white blaze on his forehead.
Dazzling Debutante and Clever Boy were reasonably competitive horses and if they were placed in the right races, they had a reasonably good chance to win, place or show. Ben was an expert at evaluating horses so he made sure they were never overmatched and they won just enough to make them affordable hobbies for their owners.
Wildfire was a completely different story, he was big and strong, mischievous and rambunctious and had the personality of a playful puppy and running in a circle bored him. When Tess arrived at the track, Wildfire would start making noise and kicking at his stall until she came over and spent some time with him. He would nuzzle up against her and playfully nibble at her coat until he was taken out for his morning exercise.
Tess would have to give Wildfire a couple of leisurely laps around the track for him to look around and play before he would even consider running, but when he did she could feel the immense power of the beautiful creature as he voraciously swallowed ground under his long graceful strides.
Tess was helping Aristeo wash down Wildfire after his regular workout when she noticed his owners talking to Ben over by his truck. After they left, Tess walked over, “What did they want?”
“They’re starting to lose patience, if he has another bad race, they’re going to sell him,” Ben replied.
“He gets bored racing,” Tess commented.
“Somebody had better tell him that he’s a race horse then,” Ben retorted.
“If they sell him, how much do you think that they would want?” Tess pondered.
“I know that look, I don’t pay you enough to support yourself without a second job and now you want to buy a horse.”
“Just find out what they want, I’m just curious,” Tess knew that if the owners decided to sell Wildfire, she was going to find a way to purchase him and then worry about how she was going to afford to keep him later.
Two weeks later, Ben brought Wildfire to the Los Alamitos Racetrack and entered him in the lowest stakes race on the schedule. The playful horse fought the jockey from the starting gate to the end and finished a dismal seventh out of eight horses.
Back at San Luis Rey Downs, Tess was chastising the stallion as she rode him around the track, “You couldn’t have won at least one race? Was that too much to ask?”
Wildfire looked back at her and neighed. Tess smiled, “You did this on purpose, didn’t you? I don’t like being manipulated, especially by a horse.”
Wildfire took off at a full sprint and passed every horse on the track as if they were standing still and Tess rubbed his powerful neck when he finally slowed down, “Why can’t you do that when it counts?”
The Lilac Fire was reported on December 7, 2017, at 11:15 AM Pacific Standard Time, as a small brush fire, just off Interstate 15. The fire was spotted at Old Highway 395 and Dulin Road, near the intersection between State Route 76 and Interstate 15, in Bonsall, San Diego County, California.
Tess had already left the track for her second job when she saw the smoke and barely gave it a second thought. Two hours later the smoke had increased in density and Tess heard the mandatory evacuation orders for various areas on the radio. She immediately got in her car and raced back to San Luis Rey Downs and by the time she got there, employees were rushing about as the strong winds blew and the raging fire burned closer. She rushed over to Barn E where Ben and Aristeo were pulling Dazzling Debutante and Clever Boy out of their stalls and letting them run loose. Tess released Wildfire, but unlike the other horses that ran away in fear, this brave steed stayed right next to her, “What the hell are you doing, get out of here!” Tess slapped Wildfire on the rump, but he still wouldn’t leave her side.
Tess did what everybody else was doing and that was to release every horse from their stalls on the property and try to get them out of harm’s way while Wildfire followed her.
Ben yelled, “The fire is getting closer! Get out of here!” Ben and Aristeo got in a pick-up truck and raced off the property as the stables caught fire.
Tess thought if she got to her vehicle and drove away, Wildfire would follow, but just as she got ready to open the door, a panicked horse came out of the smoke and hit her. Tess bounced off the car and fell to the ground unconscious and by now everything was engulfed in flames, but Wildfire still would not run away. He bent down and nuzzled Tess until she came to and found enough strength to grab Wildfire’s mane and pulled herself on to his back. When he stood up, they were surrounded by burning debris and the heat was so intense that it burned Tess’s lungs. The powerful creature fearlessly raced right into the heart of the inferno and disappeared.
A group of firefighters had set up a defensive perimeter at the bottom of a hill with their hoses spraying the burning trees, when all of a sudden Wildfire and Tess came out of the blaze covered with fire. The firefighters immediately turned their hoses on them and in a few moments they extinguished the flames.
Tess had two broken ribs, a concussion and first degree burns on her arms and face and was rushed to Palomar Medical Center for treatment, but it could have been much worse. Wildfire was badly burned and was taken to the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Wildfire’s owners were more than happy to relinquish ownership of him to avoid the expensive medical bills when they saw the seriousness of his injuries. As soon as Tess was released from the hospital, she took a leave of absence from Starbucks and moved into a tack room at the Del Mar Fairgrounds where she could give Wildfire around the clock care. While there, she also assisted Doctor Jack Ethridge, one of the track veterinarians with the other injured horses. By the time Wildfire recovered from his injuries and could get back on the track, it was mid-February. Tess noticed a change in his personality, he was still affectionate, but his lack of focus had been replaced with an indomitable spirit.
After Wildfire tenth workout, Tess galloped over to her boss who standing at the railing of the track, “If you’re a trainer and you get extremely lucky, you might get a horse like Wildfire once in your lifetime and if you’re smart, something that I have never been accused of, you try not to screw it up. You and I need to have a talk about our future plans.”
Two days later, “Wildfire won’t ride for anybody but you, so the first thing that we need to do is get you a jockey’s license. I talked to the outriders and they will watch you ride tomorrow and if they think you’re capable, they’ll recommend you to the stewards,” Ben said.
Once the outriders saw Tess on Wildfire, there wasn’t any doubt that she was qualified to ride. The horse and rider were symmetry in motion as they circled the track and Tess got her license.
“I have big plans for Wildfire, but first we need to get him some big wins in a hurry,” Ben called in a few favors and was able to get Wildfire into the prestigious 750,000 dollar Palisades Handicap on March 4th at the Santa Anita racetrack where he would be going up against some very good horses, not just from the West Coast, but from around the country.
When Ben told Tess, her response was one of astonishment, “What are you doing? Who put up the entry fee?”
Ben smiled, “Just because I live cheaply doesn’t mean that I don’t have any money.”
“I don’t want you doing this,” Tess protested.
‘It’s too late to turn back now, this horse came out of an inferno to fulfill his destiny, the least I can do is be willing to go down in flames to help him,” Ben said, “He’s your horse so either you believe in him or you don’t.”
Ben and Tess were at Clockers’ Corner, a small restaurant located at the top of the stretch at the Santa Anita racetrack when Walt Groggins, a highly successful and even higher profile trainer made his entrance, followed by his entourage. He greeted several people including owners with plastic insincerity then yelled over, “Hey Ben, I just saw that you entered a horse in the Palisades.”
“You would be correct,” Ben replied.
“Wildfire has never won a race,” Walt commented.
“Who are the owners?” Walt asked.
“That would be me,” Tess volunteered.
“You’re the exercise rider and hot walker and the owner too!” Walt laughed out loud.
“What jockey did you get?”
“That would be me as well,” Tess smiled.
“This is getting better all the time,” Walt played to his captive audience, “I always thought that you were a few bales short of a load, this proves it.”
“What are my odds?”
“A million to one, maybe,” Walt laughed even louder.
“I don’t need a million, but I’ll take twenty five to one that Wildfire wins the race,” Ben pulled out a stack of bills and set them down on the table, “Ten thousand dollars, I might be crazy, but I’m willing to back up what I say…are you?”
Walt Groggins looked around and saw that every eye in the room was on him and realized that if he didn’t accept Ben’s offer then he wouldn’t have any credibility with his fellow horsemen so he swallowed hard, “You got a bet.”
Ben handed his ten thousand to a man sitting at a table, “Henry, if I lose then you give this to Walt, and if I win I know where to collect.”
Tess and Ben left Clockers’ Corner and Tess nudged him, “You sure are throwing a lot of money around.”
Ben smiled, “You know how many years that I’ve been waiting to call out that blowhard?”
“Don’t ask,” Ben smiled.
On the day of the race, Wildfire was calm and focused, Tess rubbed his neck and whispered, “They’re giving us as much chance of winning this race as we had of surviving that fire, we fooled them before, let’s do it again.”
There were twenty horses in the Palisades Handicap and Wildfire was in the twentieth gate, not exactly the best place for a horse to start, let alone for one that had never won a race. Walt Groggins’ two entries; Whiskey Straight was in gate 2 and Wise Guy was in gate 5, good positions for both horses and Walt felt very confident that even if his horses didn’t win, the black stallion would not either. Wildfire was out of the gate in a flash and ran almost to the first turn before he even moved over to the rail and still won by seven lengths. Every spectator at the track was left speechless by what they had just witnessed.
Tess and Ben took half of their winnings and donated it to the employees’ fund of the San Luis Rey Downs’ fire to help the brave men and women who had lost most of their personal possessions and risked their lives to save the horses.
For those who thought Wildfire’s win in the Palisades Handicap was a fluke and decided to bet against him, were in for a rude awakening when he won the Santa Anita Derby by eight lengths. By now Wildfire was the talk of the horse racing world and after he won the Kentucky Derby, people began to actually believe that he could win the Triple Crown. He won the Preakness with ease and one of the main concerns Ben had about Wildfire was the longer distance of the third leg of the Triple Crown, The Kentucky Derby was 10 furlongs, 1 1/4 miles, The Preakness was 9 1/2 furlongs, 1 3/16 miles, but the Belmont Stakes was 12 furlongs, 1.5 miles.
“You need to hold him back a little for this race,” Ben advised, “I’m afraid he’s going to run out of gas.”
“I’ve tried getting him to slow down even when we’re on the backstretch and we’ve got a big lead, but he does not want to do it.”
“A couple horses in this race are very good at these longer distances,” Ben said.
“I’ll do my best, but I’m more of a passenger than a pilot on the Wildfire express.”
In 1973 the great horse Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths and that record was one of those in sports that very few ever expected to be broken. When the race started Tess pulled hard on the reins and kept Wildfire in the middle of the pack, but he was not happy in this position so he turned his head and gave Tess a quick glance and she immediately knew what she had to do. She loosened up on the reins, “It’s all yours.” That was all the black stallion needed and Wildfire shifted into high gear and when he crossed the finish line he was 32 lengths ahead and had broken Secretariat’s record.
When Wildfire returned to California as a Triple Crown Winner, everyone told Ben and Tess that the smart thing to do was retire the valuable horse and sell his breeding rights for millions.
“Are you sure you want to keep racing?” Ben asked, “It’s your horse so it is your decision.”
“If it was any other horse, you’d be right,” Tess replied, “This is Wildfire and he’s got a mind of his own and I’m not going to stop him from what he wants to do, no matter how much money I can make.”
“Ben smiled, “Nobody ever accused me of being smart and now they’re going say the same thing about you.”
“Since when do we care what people think about us?” Tess replied.
Ben and Tess made arrangements to buy San Luis Rey Downs and one the first things they did was to call in experts and install a state of the art fire prevention system throughout the grounds. Sprinklers were set up in every building and barn and they were painted with fire resistant paint. Water tanks and high pressure hoses were strategically located along the perimeter of the property and dozens of fifty five gallon barrels of fire retardant foam were stored in the warehouse. Tess and Ben also purchased dozens of flame resistant blankets for the horses and special clothing and masks for the employees. They didn’t care how much it cost; they did not want a repeat of the last disaster.
Ben upgraded from his old motor home to a customized classic coach, but still lived on the property while Tess bought a home in Bonsall and also spent most of her time at the track. She had an office and studio apartment built adjacent to Wildfire’s stable and private corral which offered an unobstructed view of the black stallion.
Nobody ever rode Wildfire but Tess and it was common practice to see them on the track in the early morning hours thoroughly enjoying themselves. To cool down Tess and Wildfire walked side by side through the grounds like lifelong friends out for a casual stroll.
In the coming years the best horses from around the world came to challenge Wildfire and he defeated them all. The multi-million dollar races with the megastar black stallion were the main attraction and highlight of the Del Mar and Santa Anita racing seasons.
When Southern Californians heard the word Wildfire, they couldn’t help but think of roaring flames fueled by acres of dried brush and fanned by the powerful Santa Ana winds. Now their thoughts also drifted to the heroic and legendary horse that was either forged into a champion by flames in the small town of Bonsall, California or was the mythical descendant of Pegasus the winged horse and Hephaestus the God of Fire and rode down from Mount Olympus.
Both explanations seemed too unbelievable to comprehend, but one fact was undisputable, Wildfire was Blazing Fast.
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