Jon White: Remembering Landaluce

It was a typically warm, summertime afternoon at Hollywood Park, made comfortable by a cool breeze blowing in from the nearby Pacific Ocean.

As usual, jets in the sky above could be seen and heard as they made their final descent into Los Angeles International Airport. LAX and the Southern California venue known as “the track of the lakes and flowers” were located only a few furlongs apart from each other, in a manner of speaking.

The date: July 10, 1982. The main event at Hollywood Park that day was the Grade II Hollywood Lassie Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at six furlongs.

Just one week before the Lassie Stakes, Landaluce had burst on the racing scene when she won a six-furlong maiden race by seven lengths as a 4-5 favorite. Her final time was stellar: 1:08 1/5. It was believed to be the fastest clocking ever posted by a 2-year-old filly in a six-furlong sprint around a turn.

As dazzling as Landaluce had been in her first start, she was even better -- much, much better -- just seven days later when moving up in class to run in the Lassie Stakes.

What Landaluce did in the Lassie Stakes was breathtaking. It was, without question, one of the greatest performances in the history of California racing.

Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. had ridden Landaluce in her debut and was back aboard in the Lassie for future Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

With a quarter of a mile left to go in the Lassie, Landaluce was just 1 1/2 lengths in front. What she did the rest of the way was nothing less than phenomenal.

Landaluce increased her lead to five lengths…then 10…then 15…and finally 21 lengths at the finish It was a ridiculous winning margin in a race at such a short distance.

A lopsided triumph like that in a graded stakes race would not be seen again at a California track for the next 40 years, not until Flightline’s 19 1/4-length victory earlier this month in Del Mar’s Grade I Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles.

Landaluce’s Lassie and Flightline’s Pacific Classic had more in common than just an enormous margin of victory. Despite 40 years of separation, what rival jockey Ray Sibille said after the Lassie and what rival trainer Bob Baffert said after the Pacific Classic had a striking similarity.

Sibille rode Bold Out Line, who finished a distant second to Landaluce in the Lassie. When I spoke to Sibille afterward, he quipped that he thought he had won the race because he couldn’t see anyone in front of him.

Hall of Famer Baffert is the trainer of distant Pacific Classic runner-up Country Grammer. Baffert said Flightline was so far in front at the finish of the Pacific Classic that Country Grammer thought he had won the race.

Keep in mind that all Country Grammer had done earlier this year was to win the second-richest horse race on the planet, the $12 million Dubai World Cup. But at the end of the Pacific Classic, Country Grammer found himself in a different zip code from Flightline.

Effusive praise followed both Landaluce’s Lassie and Flightline’s Pacific Classic.

“She’s the stuff dreams are made of,” trainer John Gosden said of Landaluce when I spoke with him after the Lassie.

Now one of the top trainers in Europe, Gosden was conditioning a string of horses on the Southern California circuit in 1982. In the two years following the Lassie, a pair of Gosden-trained runners would become Eclipse Award winners. Bates Motel, a big Sir Ivor colt, was voted champion older male of 1983. One of the reasons for his Eclipse Award was his win against 16 foes in the prestigious Grade I Santa Anita Handicap. Future Hall of Famer Royal Heroine was voted champion female turf horse of 1984 after capturing the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile that year.

Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera is best known for winning the 1978 Triple Crown with Affirmed. When I asked Barrera about Landaluce’s Lassie, he said it was the most impressive race he had ever seen run by a 2-year-old filly.

As for this year’s Pacific Classic another Hall of Fame trainer, Richard Mandella, said Flightline’s Pacific Classic was “unbelievable.”

Mandella took not one, but two shots at Flightline in the Pacific Classic, sending out Royal Ship and Extra Hope.

Flightline made the Mandella duo look like a couple of cheap claimers, which they most assuredly are not. Royal Ship, a multiple Group I winner in his native Brazil, is a multiple Grade II winner in this country. Extra Hope is a Grade III winner in the U.S.

“When you’ve got horses like we’ve got, you’ve got to try,” Mandella said in explaining why Royal Ship and Extra Hope were entered in the Pacific Classic despite the presence of mighty Flightline. “But we ran third and fifth.”

Royal Ship finished third, 26 1/4 lengths behind Flightline, while Extra Hope ended up fifth, beaten by 31 lengths.

Trainers weren’t the only ones raving about Landaluce after the Lassie and Flightline following the Pacific Classic.

In a Sports Illustrated article after Landaluce’s Lassie, William Leggett called her “the most exciting racehorse in the world.”

Andy Beyer, whose Beyer Speed Figures years later would be extensively utilized by horseplayers throughout the land, wrote in The Washington Post that Landaluce’s Lassie was “one of the outstanding performances by a 2-year-old filly in history.”

If Beyer Speed Figures had been published in the Daily Racing Form back then, there can be no doubt that Landaluce’s speed figure would have been through the roof.

Flightline did receive a giant Beyer Speed Figure for his Pacific Classic tour de force. He was credited with a 126, which is tied for the second-biggest figure since the Beyers were made public in 1991 (initially in the Racing Times, then in the Daily Racing Form). Ghostzapper’s 128 in 2004 is the only higher figure from 1991 to the present.

On Steve Byk’s SiriusXM radio program At the Races, the aforementioned Andy Beyer said of Flightline that while “great” is an overused adjective, in the Pacific Classic “we saw a performance that that word really applies to.”

Flightline reminds Beyer of Seattle Slew, one of the all-time greats and Landaluce’s sire. Seattle Slew in 1977 became the first horse in history to sweep the Triple Crown while undefeated.

Longtime Daily Racing Form writer Jay Privman called Flightline’s Pacific Classic victory at Del Mar “the most spectacular performance seen at this track since Bing Crosby threw open the gates in 1937.”

Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s executive vice-president of racing, has been involved in racing for decades and is one of the most respected racing officials in the country. Robbins does not hesitate to mention Flightline in the same breath as another of the all-time greats, Spectacular Bid.

“I was fortunate enough to see Spectacular Bid during his time at Santa Anita [in 1980], and I don’t think this horse takes a back seat to Spectacular Bid,” Robbins said to Mike Willman on his radio program Thoroughbred Los Angeles. “I think [Flightline] is, to use a word I’ve been hearing recently, otherworldly. Horses like this come along about every half-century.”

Landaluce also displayed the kind of talent that does not come along very often. When Landaluce won the Lassie, she became Seattle Slew’s first stakes winner. The dark bay or brown filly raced for owners L.R. “Bob” French Jr. and Barry Beal of Midland, Tex. The 1982 Hollywood Lassie Stakes winner was named after Francisco Landaluce, a guide in Spain for French and Beal during a hunting trip.

In every single one of Landaluce’s starts during her career, she was bet down to odds-on favoritism. This likewise has been the case with Flightline in his first five career races.

In the Lassie, when coupled in the wagering with the Lukas-trained Carambola, also owned by French and Beal, Landaluce returned $2.60 for each $2 win ticket.

Despite going to the post again only one week after her first race, Landaluce registered a final time in the Lassie that was even faster than in her maiden win. Her 1:08 flat clocking smashed the stakes record by four-fifths of a second. Landaluce not only ran fast in the Lassie, she did it effortlessly and gracefully. She was pure poetry in motion. This also describes Flightline in each of his first five races.

The stakes record that Landaluce broke in the Lassie had been set by Terlingua four years earlier. Lukas trained both Landaluce and Terlingua.

From the second crop of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, Terlingua played an important role in Lukas making a successful transition from Quarter Horses to Thoroughbreds. Terlingua would go on to become the dam of Storm Cat, one of the most successful Thoroughbred sires of all time.

A TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW

After Landaluce’s 21-length Lassie Stakes victory, many wondered what she might do next. The answer came in the one-mile Del Mar Debutante on Sept. 5.

It’s hard to believe 40 years have gone by since I was standing in the Del Mar receiving barn, a little more than a half-hour before the Debutante, awaiting the appearance of Landaluce.

When Ebaristo Olivos arrived with the big favorite, I noticed that the filly’s groom was wearing a green T-shirt with LANDALUCE in white letters on the back. The color scheme matched the green silks with white polka dots representing owners French and Beal.

Lukas understandably had his eyes glued on Landaluce in the receiving barn. Because I thought that perhaps this situation might be somewhat akin to when Lukas would be getting ready for an important game during his years as a basketball coach, I asked him if he had any butterflies.

“I sure do,” he responded.

Just then, as Lukas spoke, a fellow standing nearby evidently heard something hilarious and suddenly laughed loudly.

“For Pete’s sake, don’t be so loud or you’ll scare the horses,” Lukas said sternly to the person, who wisely piped down.

The laughing incident did not scare Landaluce. She was the epitome of composure.

Before long, Landaluce moved on to the paddock. The folks there were eagerly anticipating her arrival, much like fans at a rock concert clamoring for a band to appear on stage. Despite all the people, the cameras and the commotion, Landaluce remained calm, cool and collected.

Due in large measure to Landaluce’s presence, attendance on the day of the Debutante was 28,109, just 284 shy of Del Mar’s record at that time. Anyone hoping to purchase a program was out of luck not long after the first race. They were sold out.

“The crowd loves her,” Lukas said. “She’s obviously caught the public’s fancy. It’s a thrill for me to be around a filly like her.”

By this time Landaluce had become so popular Lukas told me that she was getting fan mail from all over the country. Lukas said he had hired a secretary to answer the filly’s large volume of letters.

It’s difficult today to appreciate just how incredible it was for Landaluce to strike a chord with people from coast to coast in 1982. She never raced anywhere other than in California. Unlike Flightline, not one of Landaluce’s races was shown live on national television. There were no simulcast broadcasts emanating from racetracks in 1982. The launch of TVG and HRTV was a long way off in the future. There was no Internet. There was no social media. In 1982, if you wanted to see one of Landaluce’s races live, you had to be at that track. Yet, somehow, she managed to become a national celebrity.

Pincay again rode Landaluce in the Debutante. This would be Landaluce’s longest race so far and her first around two turns.

In yet another similarity with Landaluce, Flightline’s Pacific Classic was his longest race so far and his first around two turns.

To be sure, Landaluce’s 21-length Lassie victory was going to be a tough act to follow. Expectations were sky high.

Issues n’ Answers, with the legendary Bill Shoemaker in the saddle for owner Tom Gentry (who bred Terlingua), set the early pace in the Debutante. She led by 2 1/2 lengths after an opening-quarter in :22 3/5. Landaluce rated kindly off the pace in second, seemingly poised to pounce on the leader, as if she were a tiger on the verge of attacking its prey.

After Issues n’ Answers continued to show the way through a half-mile in :46 flat, Pincay decided the time had come for Landaluce to go after the leader. Landaluce responded to Pincay’s cue, poked her head in front midway on the second turn, then steadily increased her advantage from there.

Landaluce’s margin of victory was not anything like 21 lengths this time. She won the Debutante by “only” 6 1/2 lengths as the 3-10 favorite. Though her final time of 1:35 3/5 was not fantastic, she looked like she was doing nothing more than taking a leisurely afternoon stroll through the park.

According to the Daily Racing Form chart, Landaluce “won easily,” as veteran chart-caller Warren Williams saw it.

Following the winner’s circle ceremony, I interviewed Pincay.

“Wayne told me to let her run her own race,” Pincay said. “I just wanted her to break good so I could be in a good position. She was just galloping the last part.”

Landaluce, produced from the Bold Bidder mare Strip Poker, was purchased at the 1982 Keeneland summer sale. Lukas told me there were three fillies he liked best at the sale.

“I approach the sales like, say, the NFL draft,” Lukas said. “My first-round choice was Landaluce. I also liked a Sir Ivor filly [Manzanares] and an Alleged filly [Carambola]. Luckily, we got all three. But I liked Landaluce best.”

Landaluce was bought for $650,000, Manzanares for $625,000 and Carambola for $470,000.

Manzanares would go on to win one of 10 career starts. Carambola won one of eight. Landaluce? She became one of the ones.

DOOM AROUND THE CORNER

In a racing career -- and life -- that was cut short way too soon, Landaluce raced only twice more after the Del Mar Debutante.

In the Grade III Anoakia Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 11, Landaluce was bet down to 1-10 favoritism. She won by 10 lengths while stepping the seven furlongs in 1:21 4/5, which broke the stakes record.

Rare Thrill finished second. Her owner was actor Vic Tayback, best known for playing the role of Mel in the television comedy “Alice.”

After trailing early in the field of eight, Rare Thrill never got close to Landaluce in the Anoakia. Even so, Tayback told me that it was his biggest thrill as a horse owner to see his filly finish second to Landaluce.

After the Anoakia, Jeff Tufts made Landaluce a 1-9 morning-line favorite in the Grade I Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita, the lowest odds that can be shown on a tote board. She became the first horse in the long history of Santa Anita to be listed at 1-9 in the program. When Landaluce exited the starting gate, her odds were even lower. She was a 1-20 favorite.

When Landaluce shook well clear from her opponents to lead by five lengths turning for home, it appeared that she was on her way to yet another win by a sizable margin.

But the 1 1/16-mile Oak Leaf turned out to be Landaluce’s closest call. Sophisticated Girl, sent away at odds of 17-1, steadily gained on the overwhelming favorite coming down the lane. Landaluce’s advantage diminished to four lengths at the eighth pole, then it was down to about three lengths at the sixteenth pole.

Landaluce ultimately reached the finish line two lengths in front. Sophisticated Girl gave it a splendid try, but she had to settle for second. While this would be Landaluce’s smallest margin of victory, it was nowhere close to being a photo finish. Nevertheless, many in the burgeoning Landaluce fan club were disappointed that she did not win by a larger margin.

Probably because her winning margin was not bigger, Landaluce’s excellent final time of 1:41 4/5 was largely overlooked. She missed the stakes record set by It’s in the Air in 1978 by only three-fifths of a second.

After the Oak Leaf, Landaluce was scheduled to make her next start in Hollywood Park’s $500,000 Hollywood Starlet Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on Nov. 28. But she did not race that day. In fact, she never raced again. At approximately 5:30 in the morning on the same day as the Starlet, the equine starlet known as Landaluce died at Lukas’ Santa Anita barn.

Never beaten on the track, Landaluce lost her battle off the track with an illness that caused a harrowing seven days for all those associated with her. It was later determined that she had died from a severe bacterial infection.

Because Landaluce’s stature had grown to such an extent nationally, her death was announced on television’s “CBS Evening News” and ABC’s “World News Tonight.” It also was reported prominently by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

Landaluce’s death sent shock waves throughout the racing world. It was hard to comprehend how such a young, vibrant filly suddenly was gone.

Just seven days earlier at Hollywood Park, Landaluce had looked better than ever when working five furlongs in :59 3/5 while displaying the zest to cover her final three-eighths in :33 4/5.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Landaluce’s “death seems particularly unfair because it has robbed Thoroughbred racing of one of its brightest stars at such a tender age,” I wrote in the Daily Racing Form four days following her death. “Fate did not even allow her to complete her 2-year-old campaign. Would she have gone on to beat the boys in the upcoming Hollywood Futurity? Would she have won next year’s Kentucky Derby? These are but some of the many questions that became unanswerable in the wake of her death.”

Prior to Landaluce’s illness and death, Lukas had planned to start her against males in Hollywood Park’s $750,000 Hollywood Futurity at 1 1/16 miles on Dec. 12 after the Starlet. But on the day of the Futurity, Landaluce was buried in the track’s infield between races.

Landaluce was posthumously voted a 1982 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly. She became the first filly to race exclusively in California to get that award. In most years, the likewise undefeated Princess Rooney would have been a slam-dunk to be voted champion 2-year-old filly.

Princess Rooney dominated the 2-year-old fillies that she faced on the East Coast in 1982. She won her six starts by margins from three to 18 lengths while racing at Florida’s Calder Race Course, New York’s Belmont Park and New Jersey’s Meadowlands. Princess Rooney won the Grade I Frizette Stakes by eight lengths in New York. She turned the Grade II Gardenia Stakes into an 11-length runaway in New Jersey.

Though an Eclipse Award eluded Princess Rooney when she lost out to Landaluce in 1982, Princess Rooney did receive an Eclipse Award two years later when voted champion older female. Princess Rooney’s 1984 campaign was highlighted by a marvelous seven-length win in the inaugural Grade I Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park.

As for the 1982 Horse of the Year election, it was not settled right away. No, there weren’t any hanging chads. But 1982 did produce the first split decision for Horse of the Year since the formation of the Eclipse Awards in 1971.

Serving as further proof of just how much expert observers respected Landaluce, in addition to her be voted champion 2-year-old filly, she managed to stake a claim for the 1982 Horse of the Year title.

The Eclipse Award winners that year were chosen by voters from the Daily Racing Form (DRF), the National Turf Writers Association (NTWA) and the racing secretaries at tracks sanctioned by the Thoroughbred Racing Association (TRA).

The three organizations each picked a different Horse of the Year in 1982. This brought to mind that one of the primary reasons for the establishment of the Eclipse Awards was to avoid having more than one Horse of the Year, as had occurred previously.

The NTWA’s choice for 1982 Horse of the Year was Conquistador Cielo. The DRF went for Lemhi Gold. The racing secretaries of the TRA opted for Landaluce.

The procedure to break the three-way tie at that time called for each organization’s top choice to get 10 points, the second choice to get five points and the third choice to get one point.

The 3-year-old colt Conquistador Cielo was crowed Horse of the Year due to accumulating 18 points, more than Lemhi Gold’s 15, Landaluce’s 10 and Perrault’s five.

No doubt Conquistador Cielo’s Horse of the Year title stemmed mainly from his extraordinary feat at Belmont Park in 1982 of winning a Grade I race at one mile on a Monday and another Grade I event at 1 1/2 miles only five days later.

Conquering his elders in the Metropolitan Handicap on May 31, Conquistador Cielo showed everyone just how fast he could run. He broke Belmont Park’s one-mile track record with a time of 1:33 when winning by 7 1/4 lengths.

In the June 5 Belmont Stakes, Conquistador Cielo demonstrated that he also had plenty of stamina by trouncing 10 fellow sophomores at 1 1/2 miles. He splashed his way to a 14-length victory on a sloppy track. Among those left in Conquistador Cielo’s wake that day was runner-up Gato Del Sol, who five weeks earlier had won the Grade I Kentucky Derby.

No 2-year-old filly has ever been elected Horse of the Year during the Eclipse Awards era. That’s why it was a huge compliment to Landaluce that she was in the mix for that honor in 1982.

According to Steven Crist, longtime writer for the New York Times before spending a number of years at the helm of The Racing Times and then the Daily Racing Form, Landaluce evoked legitimate comparisons to Ruffian. Crist was far from the only person to have had that opinion, which was truly a tremendous tribute to Landaluce.

Many regard Ruffian as the greatest female Thoroughbred of all time. She won all 10 of her starts when racing against fillies. Ruffian’s victories came at distances ranging from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles. In the eight stakes races in which she ran against members of her own sex, Ruffian broke or tied a track or stakes record every time. That’s Man o’War-like.

Ruffian’s lone defeat came when she did not finish due to fracturing both sesamoids in her right foreleg during a match race against Foolish Pleasure at Belmont in 1975.

Like Landaluce, Ruffian’s life ended far too soon, in her case as a 3-year-old. Veterinarians tried everything they could to save Ruffian after the ill-fated match race, but to no avail. Whereas Landaluce was buried in the Hollywood Park infield, Ruffian similarly was interred in the Belmont Park infield.

During the ceremony at Hollywood Park in which Landaluce was buried, track announcer Alan Buchdahl told the crowd that “we’ll never know the heights she might have scaled, but we do know that she never will be forgotten.”

But the truth is that as the years passed, it did seem that Landaluce pretty much had been forgotten. After so many years in which it seemed that she should be pictured on a milk carton because of slipping through the cracks among Thoroughbred racing’s champions, what Landaluce did in 1982 is now getting some well-deserved renewed attention in 2022. One reason for this is Mary Perdue’s recently released book titled “Landaluce.”

Though the invincible Landaluce’s racing career lasted for only five months, she certainly took fans of the sport on a magical ride during that brief time, winning her five races by a combined 46 1/2 lengths.

It’s just such a tragedy that the flame of Landaluce’s brilliance was extinguished before she could show the world what else she could do.

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