04/17/2013 4:34PM

Emerald Downs: Familiar names gearing up as meeting begins

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Erin Palmer/Emerald Downs
Winning Machine is likely to return to action in an allowance race April 28 at Emerald Downs.

AUBURN, Wash. – While a $12,500 claiming race will serve as the feature race Friday on opening night at Emerald Downs, many of the Northwest’s best runners will start easing back into action as early as next week. Winning Machine, Emerald’s leading handicap horse a year ago, is likely to start in an allowance race April 28 and could be joined by a pair of new rivals, Makors Finale and D’honorable One, both making the difficult jump from age 3 to 4.

Still conspicuously absent from that group is Noosa Beach, a two-time Emerald Downs horse of the meeting whose 2012 season was shortened by injuries sustained in a starting gate mishap. Whether he makes it back to the races in any semblance of his former self will be one of most compelling story lines of the 75-day meeting. Doris Harwood, who trains Noosa Beach for her husband, Jeff, has been consistent in her message that he will come back at 100 percent, or not come back at all.

“He worked on Sunday, a really easy three-eighths,” Harwood said Tuesday. “He was so happy to work that I had to take him back to the track the next day because he was so wild. So he’s on his way. When he tells us it‘s time to go, that’s when we’ll go. It would be fun to bring him back, but only if he’s good.”

The goal, Harwood said, is to have Noosa Beach ready for the one-mile Budweiser Handicap on June 16. It is the horse’s best distance – he’s won four stakes at eight furlongs – and the Budweiser is a stepping-stone to the region’s biggest prize, the $200,000 Longacres Mile on Aug. 18.

With or without Noosa Beach, the handicap division should be fiercely competitive. Winning Machine, a hard-luck runner-up in the 2012 Longacres Mile and a five-time stakes winner, has been crisp in his morning work for trainer Frank Lucarelli. And Makors Finale, Emerald’s champion 3-year-old last season, is on schedule to tackle Winning Machine a week from Sunday in what would be his first try against older horses.

Lucarelli, who captured the past two Emerald Downs training titles, has 45 horses here, plus another string at Golden Gate Fields. He’ll keep stakes winners Stormy Lucy and Gallant Son in California to run on turf, he said, and lean on Winning Machine to be his big horse locally.

“He’s my only one up here that’s a top-line horse,” Lucarelli said. “We hope he can hang with the big boys. He’s doing great, as good as last year. Knock on wood, he’s been real solid training. They’ve got an allowance at five and a half furlongs on the second weekend. That’s not a preferable distance for him, but our plan is to be in there.”

Meanwhile, the older filly and mare division lacks a leader, an unexpected turn of events after Class Included dominated a year ago en route to horse of the meeting honors. Owner Mike Feuerborn parted with Class Included over the winter, selling her privately after her appearance in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic at Santa Anita. She is entered in an optional claiming race at Keeneland on Friday for trainer Dale Romans.

Among the remaining filly and mare division leaders, Harwood said her front-running Carrabelle Harbor has been training well, Tom Wenzel is justifiably enthused about Exclusive Diva, a double stakes winner last year at 3, and Lucarelli is high on Smokin’ Grey, a talented late-running sprinter.

“Smokin’ Grey will hopefully be running in stakes,” Lucarelli said. “There’s an allowance for her this Sunday, and then I’m thinking she’ll step up and be good enough to compete with the older mares. I think she can be one of those who can be really competitive, if she improves off her 3-year-old season. But there are a handful of mares out there who could jump up and battle. It wouldn’t surprise me in that division if you saw a different winner in every stake.”