Barkley and Mach One Rules are the top two local horses in the Longacres Mile, and they know each other well, having competed against each other 13 times. The question is which horse will be better Sunday.
The rivalry began two years ago when they were just 3-year-olds, and they battled head-to-head down the stretch in three consecutive stakes races, each so close it was decided by a photo.
Barkley beat Mach One Rules in each of those races, and it was just the start of what is certainly the greatest rivalry in the history of Emerald Downs.
“It’s pretty amazing, they’re doing this for the third year now,” said Mach One Rules trainer Frank Lucarelli.
The question is: Which horse is the best?
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And if you can figure out that answer, you might know who will be the winner of Sunday’s Grade III Longacres Mile at the Auburn racetrack. They are the two top local hopes in the $200,000 race. Barkley is the 5-2 second choice on the morning line and will break from post No. 3, and Mach One Rules, the 4-1 third choice, will break from post No. 1. Alert Bay, shipping north from California, is the 9-5 early favorite.
Over the past three seasons, Barkley and Mach One Rules have competed against each other 13 times. Barkley has not competed in a race that did not include Mach One Rules since May 15, 2016.
Barkley had the upper hand when they were 3, winning all four matchups. Mach One Rules was better last year, finishing ahead of Barkley in three of five races, including the Longacres Mile when he was second to Gold Rush Dancer and Barkley was fourth.
Barkley has regained the edge this year, outfinishing Mach One Rules in three of four races and holds a 9-4 edge overall. But will that continue in what is easily the biggest race in the Northwest?
Lucarelli, 61, has been one of the top trainers at the track since it opened in 1996. He has done just about everything a trainer could possibly achieve at Emerald Downs except win the Mile.
“I would give up all those 50-granders for the Mile,” said Lucarelli, comparing other stakes races with the Mile. “Last year, we won all the smaller ones (then were second in the Mile), and maybe we can reverse that this year.”
Barkley trainer Howard Belvoir, 74, won the Longacres Mile in 2008 with Wasserman and in 2009 with Assessment. Barkley is coming off a career-high 94 Beyer Speed Figure in the Mt. Rainier Stakes when he lost by 2 1/4 lengths to Riser, who would have been favored in the Mile had he not suffered an injury.
“He ran as good of a race as he ever has last time,” Belvoir said of Barkley, who has won five career stakes races.
Belvoir marvels at Barkley’s talent, but is less enthralled by how his horse trains. He is a bit lazy when it comes to training, but turns it on when it counts.
“He certainly doesn’t train like a good horse, but he’s a nice horse,” Belvoir said. “A really nice horse.”
Mach One Rules has not been nearly as good at 5 as he was at 4, when he was named Horse of the Meeting at Emerald Downs.
Lucarelli said some of that might be thanks to a change in tactics. The speedy Riser easily finished first in the previous three stakes races at Emerald Downs (he was disqualified once) and Mach One Rules tried to keep pressure on Riser early in races rather than sitting farther back from the pace setters as he did last season. The result has been that Mach One Rules has faltered in the stretch.
“We were caught in those short fields and Riser was dominating them on the front end, and we were trying to sit him a little closer and I think we were taking a little bit of his race with them,” Lucarelli said.”We would like to get 5 or 6 lengths off the pace and make one big run like we were doing last year with him. I think that is our best shot.”
And if that best shot is good enough, Lucarelli will be grateful to join the list of Longacres Mile winners.
“I definitely want to win the Mile,” said Lucarelli, who has finished second twice. “It is something you would like to check off your list. It is the big go-to race every year. It would be fun, but I am not going to cry about it if I never win it. But I am certainly going to give it a few more pops, I hope.”
Beginning with Sunday. And it would be no surprise if in the stretch it came down to a battle between Mach One Rules and Barkley. It would seem very fitting.