Woody Stephens's Miss Oceana was in there trying in the second leg of New York's Triple Crown for fillies, last Saturday's $217,700 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont, but then along came Life's Magic, whom she had beaten three weeks before in the $226,200 Acorn, leg No. 1. Life's Magic is the least known of three excellent fillies from the powerful stable of trainer D. Wayne Lukas. The other two, Althea and Lucky Lucky Lucky, had earned headlines earlier this year by winning the Santa Susanna and Arkansas Derby (Althea) and the Kentucky Oaks and Black-Eyed Susan (Lucky Lucky Lucky). Going into the Mother Goose, Life's Magic had failed to win a single race in '84 and had only two victories in 12 lifetime starts.
The 1‚⅛-mile Mother Goose was something of a grudge match, though, because Life's Magic had been beaten by only a neck in the one-mile Acorn. In that race it appeared that Life's Magic was going to blow right past Miss Oceana in the stretch, but the Stephens filly fought on gamely to win. No wonder the bettors at Belmont had a problem figuring out which horse to back Saturday. What they did was bet heavily on both, sending Miss Oceana off at 7-5 and Life's Magic at 8-5.
Some thought that the small field—only five fillies started—would be to Life's Magic's disadvantage because she tends to run from far back. In the Kentucky Derby she was 13th for most of the way as Althea ran on the lead, but finished eighth, eight lengths behind Swale, while Althea nearly caboosed the train, finishing next to last among the 20 starters. Thus, when the gate opened in the Mother Goose and Life's Magic came out last, her backers didn't despair.
As expected, for the first two-thirds of the race, Proud Clarioness and Wild Applause fought for the lead, with Miss Oceana three to four lengths behind, Sintra fourth and Life's Magic last. At six furlongs Life's Magic was still fifth, but nearing the stretch turn, under a fine ride by Jorge Velasquez, she started gathering up the field. Velasquez put her inside briefly, then split horses, and she rolled merrily on past Miss Oceana as handily as if she were swishing a fly away with her tail, winning by 3¼ lengths. It was a remarkable feat, considering the fact that in their three previous meetings, Stephens's filly had won every time—though Life's Magic finished second in all three races.
Lukas, 48, is a former champion quarter-horse trainer who moved his hay rakes and feed tubs into the thoroughbred business in 1978. He and his 26-year-old son Jeff now have 115 horses in training; in just six years they have become the nation's top stable in earnings—$4.3 million in 1983.
Jeff, who is in charge of the New York branch of the stable and who saddled Life's Magic for the Mother Goose, does his homework well. "Nothing is done on whim," Jeff says. "We try to plan things out pretty thoroughly. We don't want to leave too many things to chance."
Name a track and the Lukases have probably made money there: Belmont, Oaklawn, the Fair Grounds, Latonia, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Keeneland, Louisiana Downs and, of course, their "home" tracks in California: Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. Marfa, Codex, Muttering, Island Whirl, Effervescing and Balboa Native are colts or geldings who have brought attention to the stable by winning major races, but it is for his handling of fillies that D. Wayne deserves particular praise: Terlingua was the first offspring of Secretariat to attain national fame, in 1978; next came Landaluce, the first of Seattle Slew's youngsters to make major news; and in 1983 Alydar's daughter Althea was named the 2-year-old filly champion. Lucky Lucky Lucky and Life's Magic were right behind Althea.
After the Mother Goose was over, Jeff Lukas—wearing a spanking white shirt and neatly creased pants—was back at Barn 16 on the Belmont backstretch. He wasn't celebrating though, he was setting up the feed tubs for the nine horses he has in New York.
"Does your father know Life's Magic won?" he was asked.
"Well," said Jeff, "he couldn't be here today because he was saddling five horses at Hollywood Park. But he has a New York phone number he can call and get the stretch calls of the races right after they're over. He probably heard Life's Magic win the race, hollered 'Whoopee!' and then threw the phone against the wall."
Life's Magic was last for most of the Mother Goose, but first when it counted—at the wire.