06/15/2012 3:13PM

Emerald Downs: Winning Machine may be flying under radar in Budweiser Handicap

Erin Palmer/Emerald Downs
Winning Machine scores a front-running upset in the Governor’s Handicap on May 20.

AUBURN, Wash. – Winning Machine, the little engine that could, will be among the leading contenders Sunday in the $50,000 Budweiser Handicap at Emerald Downs. But despite his recent victory over stakes foes, he’s liable to be overlooked in the wagering. Such is life in the shadow of Noosa Beach.

A four-time stakes winner who has earned nearly $400,000 in his 28 starts, Winning Machine raced to a $25.60 upset in the Governor’s Handicap on May 20, leaving Noosa Beach and three others in his wake. While a couple of those rivals had eventful trips, Winning Machine coasted to an easy lead and had enough in reserve to hold off a late wall of closers.

Trainer Frank Lucarelli expects another big effort Sunday.

“He’s going good. I think he’s up for a big race,” Lucarelli said Friday. “He’s doing better than he’s ever done for me in the couple of years that I’ve had him. I think they’ll lean toward Noosa Beach being the horse, and they probably should. And then Jebrica is a better router, and he’ll get more attention than me as well. I think we’ll be the third choice in there. But he couldn’t be doing any better physically than he is right now.”

A diminutive 6-year-old with a burning will to win, Winning Machine has made his reputation as a gamer who seldom runs a bad race, even if he’s a little less talented and a lot less flashy than Noosa Beach, Emerald’s horse of the meeting the past two years. The two were stablemates for a couple of years, before Winning Machine’s owner decided a change of scenery might give Winning Machine a chance to spread his wings. Lucarelli took over from Doris Harwood midway through the 2010 meeting, but the process has taken some time. The Governor’s score was Winning Machine’s first stakes victory since 2009.

“He had a really good winter, he came in heavier and stronger looking, and he’s been able to keep that weight on,” Lucarelli said. “We’re always battling to keep weight on him and keep him looking good. I’ve been able to train him harder, and part of that is his maturity. I think the fact I can train him the way I want to is going to make him a better horse.”

Winning Machine earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 94 for his victory in the Governor’s. He has faced Noosa Beach 16 times now and came out on the losing end in 13 of them. But Winning Machine is fast and versatile – he ran 6-1/2 furlongs in the Governor’s in 1:13.97 on a surface labeled wet-fast.

“He’s a tough horse,” Lucarelli said. “If he don’t win, he shows up, and if you falter, he’ll beat you. He comes with a good race every time.”

Aaron the Baron steps up against stablemate

Doris Harwood has high hopes for Noosa Beach in the Budweiser Handicap, and why not? He’s won the race with ease the past two seasons and eight furlongs might be his best distance. But Noosa Beach, an 11-time stakes winner at Emerald Downs, will face a couple of promising newcomers to the handicap division – including a stablemate, Aaron the Baron, who won a second-level allowance race at one mile in his last start. Aaron the Baron didn’t race at 2 or 3. Now 5, the lumbering son of Tribunal is just getting the hang of things for Harwood and owner Ken Alhadeff.

“He’s huge. Huge. He barely fits in the starting gate,” Harwood said. “That’s why he didn’t start at 2 and 3, because he was big and soft. I told Mr. Alhadeff he could run, but he had to grow into himself, and thank goodness he’s a very patient owner.”

Aaron the Baron will be making his fourth start of the meeting. He closed stoutly to finish second behind Hollywood Harbor in his season debut – a race in which Hollywood Harbor set a North American speed record for 5 1/2 furlongs – and then was third in a subsequent sprint before his victory around two turns.

“He ran behind Hollywood Harbor and that was pretty impressive on that fast track,” Harwood said. “He just ran a great race in that mile.”

“His only hang-up is the gate, because he’s so tight in there,” Harwood said. “We put a blanket on him just to get him some comfort. We open the gate to get him comfortable, and then we kind of bend his nose down to make him fit. If he gets out of there and doesn’t spot ’em a bunch of lengths, then he’s a real competitive horse. That [1:35.87] was on a tiring track; it wasn’t fast that day. I think he’s earned his chance. And you know what? If Noosa Beach falters, I think Aaron the Baron is going to run a huge race. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was right there.”