On the morning he learned that he was the trainer of an Eclipse Award winner, Wayne Lukas did not celebrate. He has not felt like celebrating anything for some time.
The honor of training America's champion 2-year-old filly, Landaluce, evokes for Lukas painful memories that never will entirely disappear.
Every time he walks through his barn at Santa Anita, past stalls 54 and 55, he thinks about the filly.
"This was the master suite," he said. "She had a double stall because she liked a lot of room. This is where she died."
A month ago, Lukas felt boundless optimism every time he passed those stalls. Landaluce had won all five of her races in spectacular fashion and was training for two stakes at Hollywood Park, the Starlet and the Futurity, that could make her the horse of the year.
The presence of such a superstar in the barn invigorated his whole operation; Lukas' stable was having a sensational fall.
When Landaluce started running a fever last month, the trainer was not worried at first. "I thought we'd still be able to run in the Starlet," he said.
"After two days, I thought we'd have to miss that race and aim for the Futurity. After three days went by, I was saying, 'My God, let's just save her life.'
"We were able to mask the problems--fever, stress--but we never made any headway. The third day, I knew in my heart it was a life-threatening situation. When you're that close to a horse, you're closer than a man is to his wife and children. You can see the gleam in their eye change."
The gleam in Landaluce's eye seemed to change by the hour. At one moment, Lukas might pass her stall and see her looking alertly out the window, as she always had liked to do, and his own spirits would be uplifted along with the animal's.
An hour later, he would look again and the filly's head would be drooping to the floor. "Come on, pick your head up!" Lukas would implore her. In vain.
On Saturday, Dec. 11, the filly had seemingly taken a turn for the better, but that night she was sicker than ever and, Lukas said, "I was real scared."
He came to the barn at 4 o'clock Sunday morning and, after taking one look at Landaluce, he told his assistant, "We're in big trouble." Just as Lukas sent the assistant to summon a vet, the filly seemed to stagger. Lukas held onto her head.
"She started to weave and brace herself," he said. "She fell, but she was still trying to get air because of the fluid in her lungs. I had her head in my lap, trying to help her get her head up. She died right there."
Since that morning, the experience of training horses hasn't been the same for Lukas. Nor has his performance. "From the day she died, we've been in a slump," he said. "This kind of deadens you. You lose sensitivity to everything. You look at the horses and they're the same ones you used to be enthusiastic about, but now they're just horses. We've won some races in the last month, but neither the wins nor the losses have much excitement."
Lukas is young and he knows he will train other good horses; with his wealthy clients and powerful stable he probably will train other Eclipse Award winners. But that knowledge is small consolation.
Every trainer harbors a dream that some day he will come across a horse with a combination of speed, stamina and conformation that will give that horse the potential to be one of the greatest who ever lived.
If a trainer has seen this dream materalize and then suddenly vanish, he has to suspect that the chance of a lifetime has passed him by forever.