05/25/2004 11:00PM

Willie the Cat travels bumpier road to victory

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AUBURN, Wash. - Willie the Cat was first to the wire in Sunday's 6 1/2-furlong Fox Sports Net Handicap, just as he had been in his five previous tours of the Emerald Downs oval, but this time it was a lot harder to get there.

Willie the Cat leapt out of the gate to establish a daylight lead in the initial strides, but when regular rider Ricky Frazier attempted to slow down the pace he was quickly joined along the rail by Best on Tap, who applied heavy pressure through a half-mile in 44.40.

As soon as Willie the Cat disposed of Best on Tap passing the quarter pole, stalkers Demon Warlock and Slewacide Cruise took up the chase as they turned into the stretch.

"I thought we were in big trouble at that point," said Tim McCanna, who trains Willie the Cat for owner and breeder Ron Crockett. "It looked like they were going to blow right by him."

Slewicide Cruise, a 19-1 outsider in the field of 10, may have poked a nose in front approaching the three-sixteenths pole, but Willie the Cat battled back from the inside and inched away to prevail by a length in 1:14.40, just .06 seconds off Bold Ranger's track record for 6 1/2 furlongs. Slewicide Cruise won a tight photo for second over Demon Warlock, the 6-1 second choice behind Willie the Cat at 3-5.

"He just wouldn't give up, and you've got to love a horse like that," said Frazier. "He has definitely become my favorite horse."

Frazier also rode Willie the Cat in his seasonal bow April 16, a 7 3/4-length victory over allowance rivals in which Willie the Cat equaled the world record for 5 1/2 furlongs, and in his 1 3/4-length win in the six-furlong Seattle Handicap just nine days later.

The reason Willie the Cat had to work harder to win by a smaller margin Sunday may have had less to do with his trip, or even his competition, than with the troubles he had over the last month. McCanna reported that Willie the Cat, a 5-year-old son of Delineator, was plagued by an abscess in his foot and a bout of colic, causing him to miss several days of training.

Willie the Cat appeared to exit the Fox Sports Net a very tired horse, leaving McCanna with the question of whether he should run Willie the Cat back in the one-mile Budweiser Emerald Downs Handicap June 20.

"He might need some R and R after three really hard races," said McCanna. "On the other hand, if we're ever going to get him to go a mile our best opportunity might be right now, when he is dead fit from sprinting. I'm not really sure. I'll just have to wait and see how he comes back from this race."

Lucarelli horses excel on short rest

Melba Jewel, the beaten favorite in the May 16 Federal Way Handicap for 3-year-old fillies at 6 1/2 furlongs, made amends just six days later, when she won Saturday's 6 1/2-furlong allowance feature by 8 1/2 lengths in 1:15.80.

Melba Jewel had finished fifth, beaten four lengths by Sariano, in the Federal Way, which was also run in 1:15.80. Neither trainer Frank Lucarelli nor rider Gallyn Mitchell could offer an excuse for Melba Jewel's uncharacteristically dull effort in the Federal Way, but there was at least one reason to suspect she would bounce back with a big race Saturday.

The reason was simply that Lucarelli has an extraordinary record of success with horses coming back on short rest. Daily Racing Form's trainer statistics, which cover the preceding year plus the current year to date, showed that Lucarelli had won four of his last 12 attempts, or 33 percent of the time, with horses coming back in a week or less. Two dollars wagered on each of those 12 horses would have produced an average rate of return of $3.80.

If one concentrates on only Emerald Downs and extends the period covered to the last five years, as Gary Dougherty did in his useful booklet Emerald Downs Insider, Lucarelli again excels. He sent out 86 runners on 10 days' rest or less from 1999 through 2003 and saw 26 of them, or 30 percent, return as winners with an ROI of $3.22.

"I've had good luck with the quick turnaround, but you can't do that with every horse," said Lucarelli. "They've got to come out of their previous race well and act like they want to go again."

Lucarelli said horses usually need extra time off after their second start in a short time span.

"When you run them back quick, you do have to back off them for a while," he said. "You want to make sure they are fully recovered before you run them again."

Lucarelli isn't alone in enjoying success with horses returning on short rest. The Emerald Downs Insider, which profiles 70 local trainers, lists no fewer than 20 who have won more than 20 percent of their starts with horses coming back in 10 days or less.