12/13/2007 12:00AM

Blazing star dark too soon

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - The comet named for Edmond Halley appears about every 75 years. Right now, it's out there somewhere in the far reaches of the solar system, rehearsing for its next sighting in 2061. Make a note.

The last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series of baseball was in 1908, a century ago. To their credit, they still show up to play the game, so anything could happen in 2008.

Then there was Landaluce, a mere filly, fewer than three years on this earth, whose flame burned white-hot during the summer and early autumn of 1982. Hardened horsemen swore she was among the best they ever saw. Fans far and wide followed her California career as if she were their own. In the 25 years that have passed, no Thoroughbred filly has stirred the West to such giddy heights, while only Go for Wand came close in the East.

Landaluce never lost, but she didn't last. She was five starts and gone, dead in the darkness of her Santa Anita stall on the morning that she was supposed to run in the Starlet Stakes at Hollywood Park. Had she run and won, Landaluce might have gone next against the boys in the Hollywood Futurity, as prelude to a possible start in the Kentucky Derby the following year. Instead, the sport mourned. There would be no second season, no more sightings in racing's bright sky.

When the Starlet Stakes is offered for the 26th time on Saturday, few will pause to remember the 1982 running, even though Landaluce is buried right there in the Hollywood Park infield. The death of Landaluce sucked all the newsworthy air out of the race, suffocating the six-length victory of Fabulous Notion under Don Pierce. Even the tale of Fabulous Notion's trainer, the veteran Jimmy Jordan, was no match for a tearful Wayne Lukas, who shared with the media that afternoon the awful events of that morning, when Landaluce died with her head in his lap, after a six-day ordeal fighting the effects of a severe lung infection and founder.

"It's a lot tougher to lose one like that than it is to lose one on the racetrack," Lukas said, his dark glasses hiding red, raw eyes. "She fought back the fever, the heat in her feet. She was able to whip everything but the last thing."

That last thing became the only thing the 1982 season is really remembered for, and that's too bad, because it was a remarkable year. The racing was graced by such stars as John Henry, Conquistador Cielo, Perrault, Lemhi Gold, Roving Boy, Christmas Past, Cupecoy's Joy, Copelan, April Run, Sangue, Gold Beauty, and Princess Rooney, who was the "other" headline 2-year-old filly that year after going a perfect 6 for 6.

It can be argued that Landaluce was more like racing's James Dean, killed on a highway with just one movie on the screen and two unreleased, destined to live on more in terms of the imagination than reality.

But at the time of her death, Landaluce's reputation was already earned. She was the brightest star in a marquee stable. She had won the four most important California races for her division by a combined 39 1/2 lengths. Of those, 21 lengths were run up in the six-furlong Hollywood Lassie, an otherworldy accomplishment that drew the attention of both Sports Illustrated and ABC News. Terry Lipham, who rode second-place Bold Out Line, earned an everlasting place in the cool quotes hall of fame that day when he deadpanned, "I thought I won the race. I beat every horse I could see."

The Del Mar Debutante was every bit as impressive, as was the Anoakia Stakes at Santa Anita in early October. Such was her reputation that when she won the 1 1/16-mile Oak Leaf Stakes by only two lengths, rivals thought they saw a chink in her armor. Lukas insisted that the Starlet would answer any foolish doubts, especially after he shipped her from Santa Anita to Hollywood for a workout on Nov. 21, a week before the race.

The next day she spiked a fever, and for the next six days Landaluce waxed and waned as infection spread to her lungs and throat. Lukas and his assistants, Bobby Barnett and Laura Cotter, were always at her side.

Cotter, who went on to manage Mandysland Farm for Richard Eamer, now works at the prestigious Alamo Pintado equine clinic in California's Santa Ynez Valley. She awakens each day to the image of Landaluce, walking through the Santa Anita gardens on her way to the saddling paddock for the Anoakia, in an oil painting by Christine Picavet. The painting was a gift from Landaluce's owners, Bob French and Barry Beal, on that bittersweet Christmas of 1982.

"When she was going to a race, she was very calm and cool," Cotter said. "But you could tell - she knew where she was going. You could feel her grow bigger than life, like a lot of great horses. She wasn't on the muscle, but she was on that march.

"What she went through was horrendous," Cotter went on. "She'd lay down, and she'd put her head in my lap. I'd massage her, try to make her comfortable. I think a horse knows that you love them.

"She was just so special," Cotter added. "And as far as I'm concerned, I still get to see her every day."