07/05/2009 11:00PM

Trainer profile: Frank Lucarelli


Frank Lucarelli mapped out his life at age 13. He wanted to be a professional baseball player, and he wanted to train horses.

"I've been working at both since I was 13," he said. "I began working at Longacres, and I'd even show up the morning I had games."

Lucarelli was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and reached High-A ball in the California League before being released at the end of the 1979 season. He became a trainer that fall.

"That winter I got a couple offers from other teams, but I was getting started as a trainer, and they were pay-your-own-way offers with a chance to be signed," Lucarelli said. "Sometimes you wish maybe you'd given one last-ditch effort, but I don't regret the decision."

Being a professional athlete, particularly one who had to rely on his arm, helped Lucarelli as a trainer.

"Being an athlete of any kind, you understand a little more how a horse behaves," he said.

Lucarelli, 52, who still helps coach high school baseball in the Seattle area, passed the 1,000-win milestone earlier this year and is reaching new heights. He saddled his first Breeders' Cup runner, Gallant Son, last fall and had the colt on the Triple Crown trail this year until he sustained a minor knee injury.

Lucarelli transformed Yacht Spotter from a midlevel claimer to a graded-stakes-placed turf performer.

Yacht Spotter's turf success continues a trend for Lucarelli, who has become a "must-play" trainer on the turf. His record in grass races the last two seasons shows he connects at a 20 percent hit rate and produces a $3.12 return on investment.

Although based at turfless Emerald Downs, where he has finished first or second in the trainer standings for the past nine years, Lucarelli got a feel for turf racing when he used to ship to Turf Paradise for the winter and now when he bases a stable in Northern California.

"It's just a feeling you get with certain horses," he said. "Some of it may be breeding, although I don't think turf [Tomlinson] numbers mean as much as some put into play.

"I think it's more style. You always look for horses that have a style that seems suitable for turf. Some run well, some don't. Sometimes you just have to try it, and sometimes you might waste a race, but there's excitement when a horse is going to try the turf. As long as a horse is healthy, you can try different things."

Lucarelli is also good with first-timers (19 percent, $2.82 ROI) and horses stretching out (16 percent, $2.50 ROI).

Although he's quick to point out that winning with debut runners "is more luck than anything," he gives his runners a solid foundation before their first start. That solid foundation also pays off with runners stretching out.

"I don't know if I have a real philosophy," he said. "I just try to get a good foundation under horses.

"You work them a little different when you stretch them out. You work longer and easier. When we prepared Yacht Spotter to try 1 3/8 miles," referring to his third-place finish in the Grade 3 Golden Gate Fields Turf, "he only worked halves, but they came at the end of two-mile gallops.

"I don't train young horses that hard.," Lucarelli added. "I don't work them as often as some do, but they've got a lot of miles on them. I may work young horses a quarter [mile], but then they gallop out a mile."

The concept of a solid foundation pays off in other ways as well. Lucarelli is a profitable play with horses coming off wins (17 percent, $2.03 ROI) and allowance runners (21 percent, $2.84) in part because he tries to build a foundation of winning just as he builds a foundation of fitness.

"Winning builds confidence," he said. "I believe with many horses if they didn't win and get confidence, they wouldn't do as well. Getting an extra win in a starter race really helped [multiple stakes-placed] Point of Reference. She ended up being a good horse because we were able to put her in the right spots."