06/16/2005 11:00PM

Keeping a family tradition going

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - David LaCroix does not need a special Hallmark holiday to keep in mind the legacy that was left to him by his father. But as long as there is a Father's Day, LaCroix was hoping to celebrate on Sunday in the best possible way with a victory in the Haggin Stakes at Hollywood Park.

That plan was dashed early Friday afternoon, however, when the Haggin was canceled. Only three horses had entered, including Corazondelcampeon from the LaCroix stable, and management was not inclined to go with such a small field.

Losing a 5 1/2-furlong race like the Haggin hardly rattles the foundations of the sport. Still, after a recent series of nagging pecks to the California racing psyche, trashing such a history-laden 2-year-old event - won in the past by Tomy Lee, Olden Times, and Squirtle Squirt - tends to shake the confidence.

The LaCroix family also owns a significant piece of Haggin history. Joseph LaCroix, who established Florida's respected Meadowbrook Farm in the late 1960's, won the 1981 running with his homebred colt Unpredictable. Trained by David LaCroix, then just 27 years old, Unpredictable went into the race a maiden and paid a bracing $112.60 on a $2 bet.

At the time, the Meadowbrook racing stable was becoming a key player on the West Coast. Untamed Spirit won the Silver Spoon at Hollywood Park that summer, and in 1979 Always Gallant carried the LaCroix colors to victories in the San Diego Handicap and Longacres Mile. The barn had a reputation for turning out fast young runners on the cutting edge of the 2-year-old program.

Unpredictable, by Tri Jet, made a successful 3-year-old debut on Jan. 20, 1982, in the San Miguel Stakes at Santa Anita. But his victory became nothing more than a bittersweet footnote to a tragic day. Upon arriving at the winner's circle to greet his colt, Joseph LaCroix was stricken with what appeared to be a heart attack, and was pronounced dead within the hour at nearby Arcadia Methodist Hospital. He was 60.

In that instant, the LaCroix racing world turned upside down. What had been essentially a family pastime in a network of various LaCroix holdings became a valuable piece of a complex estate settlement. David LaCroix and his mother, Barbara, emerged from a seven-year legal ordeal with a breeding and racing business that had to sink or swim on its own merits.

"The farm was more of a hobby, and a lot of fun for my father," LaCroix said. "I had to run it as a business. I had to evaluate horses, put realistic numbers on them, and drop them in for a claim when appropriate. If a horse came along that looked like it was worth something and showed some promise, and I got an offer, it was gone. It forced me to swallow a huge chunk of ego, because you hate to lose horses like that. But we had to do it if we wanted to keep going."

LaCroix bounced back and forth between training the family's horses in California and full-time supervision of the Florida farm as Meadowbrook's general manager. Their best runners of the late 1980's were led by Prized, a Meadowbrook homebred who was owned in partnership with Clover Racing Stables and trained by Neil Drysdale when he won the 1989 Swaps Stakes and Breeders' Cup Turf.

In 1990, Meadowbrook raised its profile as a Florida stallion station with the construction of a new, state-of-the-art stallion barn that helped fatten the bottom line and keep the racing stable in operation. Then, on May 6, 2003, the stallion barn burned to the ground, killing five stallions in a disaster that was almost as traumatic as the death of Joseph LaCroix.

In the wake of the fire, LaCroix and his mother are still evaluating their ongoing involvement in the commercial end of the breeding business. Life goes on, though, so it is no surprise that the David LaCroix stable is home to Corazondelcampeon, a son of Comic Strip raised at Meadowbrook Farm, and one of the most precocious prospects of the early 2-year-old season.

After Corazondelcampeon won his debut by six lengths on May 29, LaCroix was hit with a number of offers, including one he describes as a legitimate $1 million. This time, though, it was no sale.

"He's not our horse," LaCroix explained with a shrug. "Our vet, Scott Merrell, boarded the mare at Meadowbrook and bred the colt, then sent him to me to train. As you can see, he got lucky. When he turned down the million, I told him, 'Doc, you're making my job that much harder. Imagine how bad I'll feel if something happens to this horse.'

"On the other hand, this is a case where I don't have to sell," LaCroix noted. "Maybe Scott is doing me a favor and this colt will turn out to be something special."

Without the Haggin, LaCroix must find another spot for Corazondelcampeon, as well as another way to spend Father's Day. But it should be okay, thanks to his 14-year-old daughter, Aleyna, and his 16-year-old son, whose name is Joseph.

"He'll be walking hots for us at Del Mar this summer," David said. "Whether or not he'll be following in his dad's footsteps, I don't know. But I hope so."