08/17/2012 2:38PM

Emerald: Lucarelli has two big shots at first Longacres Mile victory

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Erin Palmer/Emerald Downs
Winning Machine, winning the Budweiser in June, is one of Frank Lucarelli's two contenders in Sunday's Longacres Mile.

AUBURN, Wash. − The definition of “big horse” is open to interpretation, and how could it not be? Frank Lucarelli figured he had a big horse, Ebony Spirit, back in 1979, but she was also his first horse and, for a time, his only horse. Lucarelli lived near Portland Meadows in a trailer that, according to a friend, was so comically small that Lucarelli and his black lab, Ebony, could barely fit inside.

From those humble beginnings Lucarelli has graduated to a more spacious home in Enumclaw, Wash., and as his career has taken flight, his big horses have gotten bigger. No Curfew captured the Gottstein Futurity and was named horse of the meeting at Emerald Downs in 1999. There were some good stakes winners in the 2000’s, including fillies Marva Jean and Melba Jewel. Yet in a fortuitous bit of timing, his two best runners have converged to be leading contenders in the Grade 3 Longacres Mile, which will be run for the 77th time Sunday at Emerald Downs.

“I definitely want to win it,” said Lucarelli, 55, who has captured four Emerald Downs training titles but has never won the marquee race. “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, sneaking into Longacres when I was 5, and the Mile is the elite deal. Nothing would thrill me more than getting into the winner’s circle.”

Gallant Son has been Lucarelli’s best horse since 2008, when he won three stakes races at Emerald and competed in the Breeders’ Cup. But Winning Machine, who joined Lucarelli’s barn two years ago, might have a better chance in the Longacres Mile. Gallant Son arrived from Golden Gate on Wednesday, took a tour of the track Thursday, and was scheduled for a short breeze Friday. A 6-year-old by Malabar Gold, he would increase his career earnings to more than $500,000 with a victory in the Mile.

“Gallant Son has done the most of any horse I’ve ever had,” Lucarelli said. “He’s won a Grade 3, got beat a couple of lengths in a Grade 1. If he runs his best race, I think he’ll win it. I’m not positive with the ship and all, but the horse is doing well. We’ve done everything we needed to do to give him his best chance.”

Winning Machine landed on Lucarelli’s doorstep midway through the 2010 meeting after his owner, Raymond Kwik, decided a barn change was needed. A Toccet gelding, he had a so-so 2011 but has been a tower of power this year at 6, winning two stakes before suffering a narrow defeat in the 1 1/16-mile Mount Rainier Handicap – the final local tuneup for the Longacres Mile – in his last start.

“Winning Machine, he could be the most consistent good horse I’ve ever had,” Lucarelli said. “He doesn’t run a bad race. If the doesn’t win, he’s got a good excuse – it’s never just because he didn’t fire. As a trainer, you love to lead a horse like that over there because you know he’s going to run for you.”

Lucarelli has been preparing himself for big races since well before Ebony Spirit won her very first start at Portland. Never mind that he had to wait five months for his next victory – Lucarelli was already hooked. His father, Mike Lucarelli, was a fixture at Longacres, a modest bettor who, as the story goes, missed about five days in 30 years. He also owned a few horses, and when his son took an interest in the training side, 13-year-old Frank went to work grooming horses for Neil Knapp.

In winters, Lucarelli spent his after-school hours driving around with veterinarian Max Nicholls. During their house calls, Lucarelli learned about equine injuries and treatment, anatomy and conformation, whatever he could soak up. A couple of years later, he became Knapp’s assistant trainer, though as Knapp recalls, the learning curve was incomplete.

“I got a ruling of some kind and had to go,” Knapp said. “I left him in charge, 10 days went by, and he didn’t do any good. I told him, ‘Listen, you’ve got to really crack.’ So he started using his head, and lo and behold, here he comes. He won three or four races while I was gone, and he realized going about it half-assed wasn’t going to get it done. But Frank was always attentive and took good care of the horses. I knew that someday he would be striking out on his own and do well.”

That day came when Lucarelli and Ebony Spirit headed south. Thirty-three years later, he is one of the most successful trainers in the Pacific Northwest, second all-time at Emerald Downs with 663 victories. He also makes regular trips to California, where Gallant Son captured the Grade 3 Inglewood Handicap at Hollywood Park in 2010.

Lucarelli and his wife, Pam, suffered an enormous loss in 2005, when their 16-year-old son, Tony, died after a prolonged battle with brain cancer. Emerald Downs names a race in Tony Lucarelli’s memory each season, and this year Frank Lucarelli saddled the winner.

“It was devastating,” said Vito Lucarelli, Frank’s brother and a jockey agent at Emerald Downs. “I don’t know how Frank got through it. Tony was such a special kid − everyone knew him, and everyone loved him. The town of Enumclaw literally was shut down on the day of his funeral. They were standing out in the parking lot because they couldn’t get in.”

It is perhaps fitting, then, that Lucarelli’s biggest horse would be named Gallant Son. And also − as he zeroes in on another Emerald Downs training title − that he would have a big horse named Winning Machine in the Longacres Mile.