If there’s one thing that’s even more certain than a 1-20 shot at a racetrack, it’s the inevitability of death.
It comes to all of mankind, and animals as well.
Yet it remains immensely difficult to accept, especially when it comes far too early in someone’s life, such as it did for one of the greatest 2-year-old fillies of the 20th Century.
Landaluce seemed invincible on the racetrack.
She won her five starts in dominant fashion, by a combined margin of 46 ½ lengths, including her first graded stakes victory, in which she romped home by 21 lengths.
“It was mind-boggling how fast she was, and how gifted she was with her efficiency of motion ...” — Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas
The Eclipse Award winner as the best 2-year-old filly of 1982, she was the first champion trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who would become perhaps the sport’s greatest trainer with 26 champions to his credit.
Yet that award would come posthumously in heartbreaking fashion as Landaluce fell victim to a deadly virus and tragically died after just five unforgettable races.
“In terms of sheer brilliance in a short career, there was probably no one like her,” Lukas said recently.
It wasn’t all that surprising that Landaluce was gifted with amazing talent.
She was, after all, a daughter of no less than a Triple Crown winner, 1977 champion Seattle Slew, who also proved to be a highly successful sire.
Out of the Bold Bidder mare Strip Poker, the bay filly caught Lukas’ eye at the 1981 Keeneland July yearling sale and he convinced Lloyd R. French and Barry Beal — who had previously owned Lukas’ multiple-stakes winning filly Terlingua — to make a winning bid of $650,000 for her.
A year later, when she shipped to Lukas’ barn at Hollywood Park to begin her 2-year-old campaign, it didn’t take long for her to prove she was worth every nickel and dime of that price tag … and then some.
“As a trainer back then, you would wake up every day and hope you have one of those great Seattle Slews or Spectacular Bids fall into your lap,” Lukas said in an interview with America’s Best Racing. “When Landaluce came along, we realized we really had a brilliant filly.”
The good vibes Lukas had about Landaluce seemed to grow by leaps and bounds with each passing day, highlighted by her first half-mile workout, which convinced Lukas he had a filly with boundless potential.
“I had a stakes horse in New York and [jockey] Angel Cordero [Jr.] and I caught a night flight to California,” Lukas recalled. “We got in about 6 a.m., and I told him we were going to work a horse that morning named Landaluce that was really special and he said, ‘Don’t work her too early and I’ll come out and work her.’
“I said I’d hold off until 8:30 or 9. So Angel gets there and I tell him she can really run and I didn’t want him to overdo it. I said, ‘Don’t let her run as much as she wants because it’s her first half-mile. Maybe work her in 48 or 49 [seconds], because she’s really talented.
“Well, he works her and I’m on a saddle horse and I pick them up after it and I ask Angel what he thinks. He said, ‘Boy, she really moves good.’ I said ‘What do you think you went in?’ He said, ‘Maybe 48 4/5 or 49.’ We rode by the clocker’s stand and I said, ‘What’d she do?’ They said, ‘44 4/5.’ ”
To that, Lukas looked over at the future Hall of Fame rider and said, “You missed her a little, Angel.”
News of the raw speed Landaluce flashed in her initial workouts spread along the Hollywood Park backstretch like gossip in the Tinsel Town rumor mill, and on July 3, 1982, when she appeared at the races for the first time, she was sent off as an odds-on 4-5 favorite.
Backing a horse at odds that low in its debut could be a risky venture, but Landaluce was the real deal.
She broke quickly in the six-furlong maiden race under regular rider Laffit Pincay Jr. and never gave her rivals a chance. Ahead by three lengths after an opening half-mile in :44 3/5, she then drew off in the stretch to lead by six lengths at the eighth pole and seven lengths when she crossed the finish line in a blazing 1:08 1/5.
“She tipped her hand early,” Lukas said. “It was mind-boggling how fast she was, and how gifted she was with her efficiency of motion and the way she got over the ground.”
A week later, Lukas ran Landaluce in the Grade 2 Hollywood Lassie Stakes and a superstar was born.
What seemed like a competitive race in its early stages turned into a mismatch of epic proportions.
Second by a half-length through an opening quarter-mile in 21 3/5 seconds, the fleet filly grabbed a 1 ½-length lead at the quarter pole after a half-mile in a blistering 43 4/5 seconds.
What happened after that became a part of racing lore. Once she entered the stretch, Landaluce pulled away from her rivals with each and every swift and fluid stride. By the eighth pole, she owned an insurmountable nine-length lead through five furlongs in 56 seconds.
Yet that margin was akin to a white-knuckler compared to a breath-taking final furlong that saw Landaluce pull away in an astonishing manner. She crossed the finish line 21 lengths ahead of her overwhelmed rivals.
“The Lassie, you watch that on YouTube, and you’ll just say, ‘Wow,’ ” Lukas said. “At the top of the stretch there are four horses together. There were a few other stakes winners in there, but it looks like they stopped running and she opened up 21 lengths. The cameras stays with her and stays with her and then finally the rest of the field comes into the picture.
“To me, that was similar to Secretariat’s Belmont. It was one of those races you’ll never forget.”
If anyone doubted Landaluce’s brilliance, they were quite hard to find after the Lassie.
Given a rest until Sept. 5, she stretched out to a mile for the Grade 2 Del Mar Debutante and once again she pulverized her foes in the stretch. Ahead by just 1 ½ lengths at the eighth pole, she pulled away with consummate ease in that final furlong to win by 8 ½ lengths in a time of 1:35 3/5.
A 10-length victory in the Grade 3 Anoakia Stakes followed, and then on Oct. 23 she became a Grade 1 winner when she posted a two-length score as a 1-20 favorite in the Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita, covering a mile and a sixteenth in 1:41 4/5.
The next objective was the $518,850 Hollywood Starlet on Nov. 28, which at the time was the richest purse for fillies in Thoroughbred history. Yet Lukas knew that his amazing 2-year-old was also capable of handling males and targeted the Hollywood Futurity, another $500,000 stakes, for her 1982 finale.
“We knew she could run against the boys,” Lukas said. “We thought the sky was the limit for her. We could run her against anyone.”
But in the week leading up to the Starlet, Landaluce became ill with a fever of 103. At first Lukas and veterinarians believed it would be a minor illness, but it turned out to be a strain of Colitis-X, the same virus that a few years earlier nearly killed Seattle Slew, her sire. Landaluce’s situation worsened by the day and the doctors treating her were unable to help her.
“We kept thinking we could turn it around, but of course we didn’t and we didn’t have a chance to do it,” Lukas said. “It was a virus that attacked all of her vital organs. We had no chance to save her.”
Finally, in the early morning hours of Nov. 28 — the day the Starlet would be run — Lukas saw that Landaluce was growing unsteady and he entered her stall to help and comfort her.
“I had gone in the stall, thinking she had taken a turn for the worse. I could see she was getting weak and she started to stagger and fell against the wall,” Lukas said.
When Landaluce fell to the ground, she knocked over Lukas and her head landed in his lap. As he tried to help her up, Landaluce died with her head in Lukas’ arms.
“It was so hard to handle when we lost her so quickly,” Lukas said. “It took me a long time to get over it, and I never let myself get in that position again with too many horses. It was difficult and it was early in my career, and I didn’t handle it well.”
Lukas wasn’t alone in his sorrow. He recalls having to arrange mental help for one of Landaluce’s grooms who was found days later sobbing in the horse’s stall.
The loss of Landaluce was a shock to the entire racing industry. Not only did the sport lose a dynamic champion, but with her bloodlines she would have been a prized broodmare.
Though she raced only five times, she had already captured the imagination of countless racing fans who mourned her loss. Lukas recalled seeing reports of Landaluce’s death on network news shows, something, he said, “you had never seen for horse racing at the time.”
Landaluce was buried at Hollywood Park. Wwhen the track was closed in 2013, her remains were moved to a final resting place at the farm where the filly was born, Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Ky., and where her legend lives on.
“I’ve trained 17 champions and Landaluce is right up there with the best of them,” Lukas said. “She was one of the very special ones.”
Fast facts about Landaluce
- The highest price she paid to win in her five victories was $2.70 in her debut.
- She was named in honor of Francisco Landaluce, a hunting guide French and Beal met during a trip to a Spanish farm.
- The Hollywood Lassie was renamed the Landaluce Stakes. The race is now contested at Santa Anita.