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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / DIANE PUCIN

Couple's True Love Spends Nights in a Barn

April 18, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

It was wedding day for Laura and Wayne Lukas. It was also a sunny summer morning and there were horses to be trained. So Wayne went to Santa Anita to work with his thoroughbreds and Laura to Los Alamitos to work with her quarter horses.

When work was done, the couple grabbed a flight to Las Vegas and said their vows. Then they grabbed a flight home. Then they got up the next morning, kissed goodbye and went off to Santa Anita and Los Alamitos.

This is a busy time for trainers. The quarter horse season has just opened at Los Alamitos, and it is nearly Triple Crown time for the thoroughbreds.

And Laura and Wayne, still in the rookie year of their marriage, are not exactly dewy-eyed romantics.

"It's the fourth marriage for both of us," says Laura, 39. She has been married to a jockey and a trainer before and has come to understand that to love her horses unconditionally means that loving humans doesn't always fit into the schedule.

Wayne, 63, is one of the premier trainers in the country, a demanding perfectionist whose best friend is Bobby Knight and whose appearance, with his startling white hair and carefully pressed clothes, is always spotless and fashionable.

Which makes Laura laugh, because she wears jeans. Period.

As she leans on a railing at Los Alamitos, exchanging jokes with grooms and jockeys, Laura Lukas seems to have been born in one of the barns. It's as if the dust and dirt and flies and the smell of horse came attached to her at birth.

And yet there were no horsemen or horsewomen in her family when she grew up as Laura Pinelli. Her father, Fred, worked construction. Her mother, Dorothy, worked numerous jobs. Laura was just a kid growing up in Anaheim until, she says, "My grandparents took me to Santa Anita one afternoon just for fun, to watch the races."

Laura was 13 that day and by the time her grandparents had taken her home, she knew "my future was settled." "I fell in love," she says.

After that, the Pinellis noticed that their daughter was getting up at 4 in the morning so she could walk an hour to Los Alamitos.

"I would just sit on the fence and watch," Laura says.

When the racing season started, Laura would leave Western High in Anaheim after fourth period.

"I just couldn't stay away," she says.

On her 16th birthday, the first day she could, Laura applied for a license to work at Los Alamitos and told her parents she was quitting school. At first all she did was muck stalls and mend blankets. Odd jobs, menial jobs. But she learned. And she loved. Loved everything about the place and, most of all, the animals. It was a gradual process, learning to be a trainer.

For four years, Laura worked for Bob Baffert and in 1991, when Baffert left Los Alamitos and the quarter horses and moved to Santa Anita, Laura had a choice to make. She could stay with Baffert or she could be on her own, a trainer of quarter horses at Los Alamitos.

And, really, it was no choice at all.

"I love the quarter horses. I love the life. I love the people," she says. "So I stayed."

Ask Laura Lukas this question: If you could only go to one race, have horses in one race, win one race--thoroughbred's capstone, the Kentucky Derby, or the quarter horse masterpiece, the All-American Futurity in Ruidoso, N.M.--which would it be?

"Well that's easy," Laura says. "The All-American." And how about Wayne? "You'd have to ask him," she says, "but I think he'd say the All-American."

Not exactly.

"That's an unfair question," Wayne says by telephone from the Holiday Inn in Louisville, where he spends the weeks before the Kentucky Derby. "I've never won the All-American and I'd love to. But the ultimate race is the Kentucky Derby. If I could only be in one place, there's nothing like the Derby."

Wayne started out as a quarter horse trainer, too, and when Laura began working at Los Alamitos, she remembers, she had nice, long talks with him.

"She has vivid memories of that," Wayne says. "I don't."

Instead, he remembers the mid-1990s, when some of Laura's clients asked her to train some thoroughbreds at Santa Anita. Laura, lonely for the camaraderie she finds among quarter horse people and, she says, is missing around the big business of thoroughbreds, started coming by.

"Just to talk about the quarters," Wayne says.

The marriage came naturally for two people whose lives and loves were the same. Horses.

It took Laura a while to persuade Wayne to return to Los Alamitos. When he'd ask what she wanted to do, she answered that she wanted to spend the night at Los Alamitos.

One night, after cashing a ticket in the first race, Wayne told Laura to look for a quarter horse to buy. Now, Wayne Lukas Stables has more than 20 quarter horses.

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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