03/31/2009 12:00AM

Gallant Son stepping up to the bigs

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - Frank Lucarelli was watching a national telecast of a Major League Baseball game in the 1980s when he suddenly sat up. Dale Mohorcic, one of Lucarelli's old teammates from a minor league team in Victoria, British Columbia, was entering the game as a relief pitcher.

"I couldn't believe it," Lucarelli said. "He had made it to the major leagues."

This spring could produce Lucarelli's appearance in racing's major leagues. Lucarelli trains Gallant Son, a starter in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, and a colt with an outside chance of making the Kentucky Derby.

Gallant Son, whom Lucarelli describes as the "best I've ever trained," will be a longshot in a Santa Anita Derby that features three of the top California-based 3-year-olds: Chocolate Candy, Pioneerof the Nile, and The Pamplemousse.

Gallant Son, a $9,000 Keeneland yearling purchase by Chris and Diane Randall, has won 5 of 9 starts and $161,988, but is seeking his first graded stakes win in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. He must win or run second in the race to earn sufficient graded stakes money to have a chance of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby field.

"I don't think we'd get into the Kentucky Derby unless we ran one-two, and we may not have enough if we run second," Lucarelli said. "I think he's got a shot. I'm not going in there just to run in the Santa Anita Derby. I don't care if it's $4,000 claimer or a $400,000 race, I don't like to run if I don't have a shot."

Lucarelli, 52, is unknown on the national stage, but a fixture in the Pacific Northwest, where he is the second-winningest trainer in the 12-year history of Emerald Downs, near Seattle. Currently, Lucarelli has 24 horses at Golden Gate Fields and 46 at Emerald Downs, awaiting the start of that track's meeting on April 17. He will come down from Golden Gate to saddle Gallant Son, who has been training at Santa Anita for most of the winter.

Gallant Son will be the first Emerald horse to run in the Santa Anita Derby and would be the first to start in the Kentucky Derby.

It was at Emerald Downs that Gallant Son began his career last June, with a fourth-place finish in a maiden race. By Malabar Gold out of the Exploit mare Explicitly, Gallant Son reeled off four consecutive wins from late June to late September, including three stakes victories. Gallant Son then finished a troubled seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October, beaten 3 1/2 lengths by Midshipman.

"I didn't get a good trip," Lucarelli said.

Gallant Son was given a break last fall, and he returned to finish fifth in the California Derby over the synthetic Tapeta surface at Golden Gate Fields in January. Now, Lucarelli second-guesses the decision to run him in that race, saying it took Gallant Son longer than expected to rebound from his 2-year-old campaign.

"I gave him about five weeks at the farm, and it wasn't that good," he said. "I probably should have kept him going in a lighter way. It's taken me until the third race to get him as sharp as he was."

After a sixth-place finish in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes here on Feb. 16, Gallant Son won his first race outside of Washington, and his turf debut, in the Pasadena Stakes over a mile at Santa Anita on March 15.

Lucarelli and the Randalls considered keeping Gallant Son in $100,000 turf stakes at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park later this month and in May, but have opted for the Santa Anita Derby over 1 1/8 miles of the Pro-Ride synthetic surface.

"I don't think a mile and an eighth will hurt him," he said. "The horse is doing really good right now. He's really sharp and has come out of that race as well a horse can.

"We're in with three top 3-year-olds that everyone knows. The flip side is that if we're not on the top of our game, then we need to stay in those hundred-granders."

Gallant Son has been ridden by Emerald jockey Leslie Mawing for 8 of his 9 races, but Rafael Bejarano will be aboard in the Santa Anita Derby.

Lucarelli has trained Thoroughbreds since the fall of 1979. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a pitching prospect in 1975, Lucarelli received his trainer's license two weeks after he was released from a Class A team in Bakersfield, Calif. His brother Vito played briefly for the Chicago White Sox.

Lucarelli keeps close tabs on baseball, and even throws batting practice at a high school in the Seattle area when he's home. He may not be home much in coming weeks, especially if Gallant Son runs well on Saturday.

"I think if you're going to try to beat the quality of horses we're facing in the Santa Anita Derby, it's right now," he said. "My owners have that little tiny glimmer of Kentucky Derby hope."