By Ned Randolph
DEL MAR, Calif., Oct 23 (Reuters) - As homeowners across Southern California packed up their cars to flee wildfires, equestrians and ranchers in prime horse country scrambled with trailers to haul thousands of four-legged evacuees out of harm’s way.
San Diego’s historic Del Mar Fairgrounds and racetrack quickly became a hub of the equestrian evacuation, taking in nearly 2,000 horses trucked in from around the county.
About 1,000 more horses were given emergency shelter at nearby parks and polo grounds, and some were diverted to space set aside at a major center for human evacuees at the Qualcomm Stadium, home of the National Football League’s San Diego Chargers.
Even as residents of adjacent neighborhoods were ordered to leave their homes on Tuesday and a haze of smoke blanketed Del Mar, fairground owners said they would stay put for now.
"We’re not evacuating," spokeswoman Kina Paegert told Reuters.
With its 1,910 stalls filled to capacity, it became a melting pot of equestrian culture as thoroughbreds and show horses mixed with the working stock of inland ranches and riding stables.
"It’s an incredibly diverse group and we are mixing these communities," Paegert, herself an evacuee, told Reuters.
Horses are big business in San Diego County, which leads California’s 58 counties in sales of horses, ponies, mules and donkeys, totaling $3.2 million in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Del Mar lies near a cluster of affluent suburbs and upscale ranches where horseback riding and equestrian events are as popular as high school football is in more middle-class neighborhoods.
Horse owners started showing up at Del Mar before dawn on Monday, many of them securing their own animals only to turn around and head back with empty trailers to help out neighbors.
"I‘m tired," said school teacher Kathy Oxford, whose house was destroyed. "We have five horses. My husband got four out and left the stallion. The neighborhood was getting dark, and I was kissing the stallion goodbye, when my friend showed up with her trailer out of nowhere" to fetch the horse.
Others were staying with their animals at Del Mar by choice, bunking down in cramped jockey quarters.
"We’ll sleep on the floor," Kerri Rocovich said as she prepared carrots in the back of a pickup truck for horses that neighed and kicked uneasily in their stalls.