09/23/2005 12:00AM

Three-way fight for training title

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AUBURN, Wash. - Among the more interesting races yet to be decided at the current Emerald Downs meeting is the one for leading trainer.

With 14 days of the 101-day meeting left coming into this week, Tim McCanna and Frank Lucarelli were in a flat-footed tie for first with 43 wins apiece, and Jim Penney was just one win back with 42.

The same three trainers fought it out to the wire here in 1998, when Penney prevailed with 46 wins to 45 for McCanna and 43 for Lucarelli. The three again battled last year, when Lucarelli came out on top with 52 wins to 50 for McCanna and 47 for Penney. Lucarelli, who also won the title over McCanna in 1999, broke a string of four straight training titles for McCanna, three of them over Lucarelli.

If this year's contenders for leading trainer are familiar, that doesn't make handicapping the race any easier. Penney goes into the stretch drive with momentum, having won 14 races over the last month to five apiece for McCanna and Lucarelli, but he noted that his fate isn't entirely within his control.

"I've got horses to run, but it is a case of getting races to fill for them," said Penney. "I didn't get any in for Friday, and I only got races to go for two of the four I entered for Saturday."

Lucarelli, with four horses entered, and McCanna, with six, fared a little better on the first two entry days for this week. All three of the trainers will need to get lucky to find the right races for their horses, as only a handful of races are certain to fill. Those are the seven stakes scheduled for Washington Cup Day, Oct. 2, plus the $100,000 Gottstein Futurity on Oct. 15.

In that regard Penney may have an advantage, as his barn is top-heavy with stakes runners.

"I will have at least three or four to run on Washington Cup Day, and Schoolin You will come back in the Gottstein," said the trainer.

Schoolin You, who won the WTBA Lads in his last start, will likely be favored in the six-furlong Captain Condo Stakes on Washington Cup Day, while world-record holder Sabertooth figures to be the one to beat in the Chinook Pass Sprint.

"We will nominate Sabertooth for both the Sprint and the Classic, but we're probably going to run him in the Sprint," said Penney. "In a way I hate to do that because I've also got Diamond View for the Sprint, but I have to do what is right for the horse. Sabertooth has been a little rank in his last couple of routes, so he is probably better off sprinting for now."

Canadian handle small but growing

Emerald Downs became the first U.S. track to offer Canadian fans the opportunity to bet directly into its pools on Aug. 18, and the Canadian handle on Emerald races has since grown encouragingly to average $34,703 per day. That represents an increase of 101 percent over the $17,249 per day that Canadians wagered last year, and a 57 percent increase over the $22,113 per day wagered before common pooling went into effect this year.

"Our Canadian handle is still small, but the growth is impressive and we're optimistic that it will continue," said Susie Sourwine, Emerald's vice president of marketing. "It was really a ridiculous situation when Canada had to make its own pools on our races, because those pools were too small and the payoffs were often very different from what they were at the track."

Canadian wagers must pass through a filter to convert them to U.S. dollars when they go into Emerald's pools, then pass through another filter to convert them back to Canadian currency for payoffs. That being done, the payoffs are the same in both countries as long as the takeouts are the same.

"Hastings agreed to use our takeouts for all wagers, but Assiniboia uses its own takeouts, which are higher, for some of the exotic wagers," said Sourwine. "Payoffs on those wagers are a little less than they are at Emerald."

Schedule produces more revenue

The success of Emerald's current experiment with Monday racing is harder to evaluate. Beginning in September, the track dropped Thursdays and picked up Mondays.

Excluding Labor Day, the handle for the two Monday cards has averaged about $750,000, slightly more than was handled on the comparable Thursday cards at last year's meeting. However, since a larger proportion of the Monday handle comes from out of state, which yields much less revenue for the track and the purse account, the switch would seem to have resulted in a net loss.

It is more complicated than that, as track president Ron Crockett explained.

"What you might not think about is the effect on simulcasting," said Crockett. "When we were racing Thursdays through Sundays, the only other day we could simulcast was Wednesday. There weren't enough tracks running to justify opening up on Mondays or Tuesdays. When we race Fridays through Mondays, we can also simulcast on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

"We've traded four live days and one simulcast day for four live days and two simulcast days, and that results in a net plus for the track and the purse account. It was the right thing to do."