SAN DIEGO — Some painful stories do find happy endings, despite the darkest of clouds and dimmest of days. Resilience, sometimes unrewarded in life, sweetens the satisfaction when a fulfilling finish line is reached.
That's the heartwarming reality for grinding, jeans-wearing, pickup truck-driving, no-guff horse racing trainer Joe Herrick. That's the new and unrushed world for Lovely Finish, a filly badly burned in the deadly Lilac Fire that swept across the San Luis Rey Downs training facility in rural Bonsall on Dec. 7, 2017.
The blaze that hop-scotched from palm trees to barns in a blink claimed 46 horses as Lovely Finish narrowly avoided becoming No. 47. As Herrick and horse each fought to extricate the other, flames melted the tips off both ears of Lovely Finish and burned Herrick over 23 percent of his body.
The first goal was to return to the racetrack, together. That happened, 10 grueling months later. The second goal was to be competitive. Seven races in, Lovely Finish had landed in the money each time with four seconds and three thirds.
Then, Herrick hoped beyond hope that the pair could apply a splendid bow on it all with a win. He knew the clock was ticking, because of her age and limited race options. They broke through Feb. 13 at Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress.
So, when a recent scan showed a minor ligament injury below an ankle, Herrick did not hesitate. He decided Lovely Finish would retire and begin the leisurely life of a broodmare.
"My main goal with her is, she remains safe and retires sound," Herrick said. "That's the biggest win of this whole story, she's not sore at all. She's walking good. She can enjoy life. There are no lasting effects from a minor injury. I knew right then and there we weren't going to take any chances.
"I almost lost her once. I wasn't going to put her at risk and possibly lose her again."
The Union-Tribune followed their story from burn units to barns, peeling back the layers of a singular relationship forged in flames.
Twelve days into Herrick's hospitalization, he forced the hands of doctors to leave weeks earlier than planned. Instead of focusing on his own recovery, he thought about the horse that tossed him into the shed row after a ball of fire threatened to take both of their lives.
"I told them, 'I'm going AWOL or you're going to release me.' Your choice," Herrick said. "I wanted to be there with my horse and make sure she was OK. I felt she needed me and I needed her."
The reunion was heart-wrenching.
"I was devastated," he said. "She had skin hanging off her. It was pretty rough ... pretty rough."
Then came the daily ointments and scrubs and treatments to flake away dead skin and reinvigorate remaining tissue. Much of it came in the literal shadows, as both fought debilitating sensitivity to sunlight.
"You keep your hopes up," said Herrick, punctuating the pain with a one-liner. "You keep a bottle of tequila around the office for emergency purposes."
Slowly, loyalty became unconditional love.
Lovely Finish, a cantankerous character, nabbed hats off Herrick's head and chewed on them until they needed tape to remain functional. She rediscovered her unbridled spirit with each trip to the gate an unpredictable adventure.
Then she competed and challenged and, finally, found a way.
"She's a warrior," Herrick said. "One of the most powerful horses I've ever been around. She's 1,275 pounds of pure muscle. She overcame so much. We overcame a lot to get in that winner's circle."
That win arrived just in time.
"When they run well, I think it speaks volumes about your care," he said. "The care has to be there to run well every time and be so consistent. I took a lot of pride that she never ran a bad race."
Herrick, a gregarious karaoke singer, is routinely reminded that part of that day in 2017 always will remain with them. He recently received his COVID-19 vaccination, a priority given a lingering health concern.
"When I listen to recordings and sing, I can pick up that my lungs are a little bit messed up," he said. "We both have our scars."
The smile and infectious laugh of Herrick reminds, though, that something so horrific did not signal an ending, but a warming beginning. As Lovely Finish arrived at the breeding farm, Herrick played a certain, ahem, mood-setting Marvin Gaye song.
Life moseys gloriously along.
"She's happy," Herrick said.
The happy ending both deserved.