08/30/2013 4:06PM

Emerald Downs: Wright among several trainers shuttling between tracks


AUBURN, Wash. – In a figurative sense, trainer Blaine Wright will send out Rocky’s Quest to compete in Sunday’s $30,000 feature race at Emerald Downs, but in reality, Wright will be some 700 miles away at Golden Gate Fields, where he keeps a second string of horses. While Wright tends to his runners in California, his assistant, Mark Rheinford, will give jockey Juan Gutierrez a leg up on Rocky’s Quest.

The changing nature of the business now demands that Wright shuffle between racetracks to ensure a healthy income, just as it has for many of his fellow horsemen in the Pacific Northwest. And with only Portland Meadows between Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, Wright’s commute is a long one.

Wright, 39, is in the midst of a terrific meeting at Emerald Downs. He has won with 29 percent of his starters to lead all trainers, and only Dan Markle has had a higher percentage of starters in the money than Wright’s 61 percent. Yet Wright has been just as effective in Northern California. In fact, over the past 12 months, Wright has saddled more winners in California (29) than Washington (25).

“I don’t look at that – I look at my barn as a whole,” Wright said this week from Golden Gate. “I have wonderful clients in both places. I think it’s a tribute to the people who work for me and can run a barn and put horses in winning spots. It’s a big team effort, from the owners down to the hotwalkers.

Emerald-based trainers Tim McCanna and Frank Lucarelli also have increased their presence in California in recent years. McCanna, a 10-time training champion at Emerald Downs, is on a pace that would leave him with 161 starters at the current Emerald meeting, down from 224 a year ago. In the first eight months of 2013, McCanna has started 125 horses at Emerald Downs and 180 in California.

Lucarelli has settled on something close to a 50-50 split of his stable; he has started 168 horses at Emerald Downs this year and 164 in California. On what has become a typical Sunday for Lucarelli, he will send out five starters at Emerald Downs and three more at Golden Gate Fields.

While it can be difficult to win races at Golden Gate, a venue dominated by Jerry Hollendorfer, John Martin, Steve Sherman and others, the heightened competition, turf and synthetic courses, and richer purses are carrots that keep luring Wright and others to the Bay Area when they would rather be at home, playing catch in the backyard or firing up the grill.

“This is fun – it’s challenging – but I own a home in Enumclaw, Washington,” Wright said. “I’ve got the greatest place, and sometimes I don’t feel like I live there, because I’m not there enough. I like this Tapeta surface, and I like the straw and running for three times as much money, but at the same time, you want to be home. That’s the difficult part about it.”

That, and juggling the wants and needs of owners, assistant trainers, and the other worker bees who have helped turn Wright into a high-percentage trainer with a handful of stakes-quality runners.

“Logistically, it’s a challenge,” Wright said. “It’s difficult. Sometimes you wake up at night, especially when accidents happen and you’re not there. You would hope if something goes wrong and you have to make a terrible phone call to an owner, you would be the one there. The good part is, when things gel and you do well in both places, and everyone is working toward one common goal . . . that’s fantastic.”

Wright’s father, Richard Wright, a former jockey and trainer, helps run the operation at Emerald Downs, though Rheinford, himself a former trainer, does most of the heavy lifting. In California, Wright’s right-hand man is Pasqual Garcia, who was Greg Gilchrist’s assistant before Gilchrist retired in 2010.

“We’re a family, from my mother and father to my sisters to my girlfriend to Mark and his family,” Wright said of his Emerald Downs crew. “The people up there, they have my best interest at heart, and my clients’ best interest, and that’s huge. Mark has had his own barn, and he’s in a situation where he wanted to be home, and it gives me great pleasure to allow him to be home and kind of take over the barn there. My dad and my mother are very good assets. My dad wanted to take more of a stand-back role, and my mom is very behind-the-scenes, but she’s there, and for us, it’s working. As long as my clients are happy, it’s going to be okay for us.”

Wright nominated Rocky’s Quest, a standout middle-distance runner, for the $35,000 Portland Mile at Portland Meadows on Labor Day. But when a $30,000 allowance race popped up at Emerald Downs on Sunday, he opted to stay close to home. Figuratively.

“We’re going to run him at Emerald,” Wright said Friday. “We didn’t know the race was going to be offered, and we were looking at our options.

“Any time we can stay home and not have to travel, we’ll take that.”