Even while he was pitching in the minor leagues, there was never a doubt in Frank Lucarelli’s mind what he would do someday: train racehorses.
Lucarelli never made it to the big leagues in baseball, but he has become the leading trainer in the history of Emerald Downs and undoubtedly will soon be a member of the Washington Racing Hall of Fame.
“I would say the next time he is on the ballot, he’s going to get in,” said Joe Withee, director of publicity and broadcasting at Emerald Downs who has been in the industry more than 45 years. “He fits so well. The stats, the records, the personality. He has been a great addition to Washington racing.”
The outgoing Lucarelli, who looks much younger than 63, has been a model of consistency at Emerald Downs, the Auburn racetrack, for more than two decades. In the past 23 seasons he has finished in the top three of the trainer standings 21 times and has not been out of the top three since 2009.
That consistency is rarely seen in horse racing, where slumps are common. He has 1,042 career wins at Emerald Downs, 101 more than second-place Tim McCanna.
“I’m very proud of (the wins record), and I’m proud that I’m the leading money earner,” he said. “Those are things that 20 years ago you don’t sit there and think, ‘I want to be the leading earner someday.’ You just go and do your job each day, and we work hard and try to win every race we run a horse. But I’m proud of it — very proud of it. It’s something we all work hard for, and at the end of the day you can look back and say, ‘We’ve done OK at this.’ “
Lucarelli grew up loving baseball, but that wasn’t his only love.
His father owned part of a racehorse when Frank was a young kid, and he would go with his father on Saturday mornings to Longacres racetrack in Renton.
“We would have breakfast and watch the horses train, and I just liked it,” Lucarelli said. “I’ve never been much of a gambler — I hardly ever bet — but I like the business.”
When he was 13 Lucarelli started working in the summers at Longacres for trainer Neil Knapp, doing a bit of everything, from grooming to escorting racehorses to the track on a pony. When he became a bit older, he started working in the winters at an animal clinic for Max Nicholls, a racetrack veterinarian, “and I would pick his brain about horses and anatomy.”
“I wanted to learn everything I could — and I was reading about it, and working with the horses and I was loving the whole thing,” Lucarelli said. “By the time I was 16 I said, ‘I’m going to play ball as long as I can, and then I am going to train horses.’ That was my path when I was pretty young, and I’ve been fortunate to live it out pretty well.”
Lucarelli has wondered what he might have accomplished in baseball had he been singularly focused on that sport. He was the winning pitcher for Newport High School in Bellevue in the 1975 state semifinals, then was drafted in the 19th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But after two seasons in the minor leagues — going 2-10 with Victoria and Bakersfield in Class A — Lucarelli was ready to start training, even if it was a bit earlier than he might have hoped.
“I had two years in the minors, and I had racing on my mind,” he said. “It’s one thing if you’re moving up in an organization, and it’s another thing if you’re making $500 a month playing (Class) A ball when you have another path you want to get to.”
Journey to the top
In August 1979, when Bakersfield released him, Lucarelli headed home to Longacres and got his training license.
“There were a lot of tough times,” Lucarelli said. “I didn’t have many horses — three to four — but my wife (Pam) worked and kept things afloat for us. She had a good job with benefits, and she was able to get me going, or it would have been a really big struggle. Then we started doing better and better, and then Longacres closed.”
When that racetrack closed in 1992, many of Lucarelli’s clients lost interest, “and I went from building up to 25 to 30 horses to back down to about five horses.”
He started selling cars on the side and went to Yakima Meadows (which has since closed) four or five days a week.
The opening of Emerald Downs in 1996 changed everything for Lucarelli, who has 60 horses there.
“When we got to Emerald things took off like they did in the Longacres days, and we started getting rolling pretty good,” he said. “We’ve been pretty fortunate to hang in there and do pretty well and provide a decent living for the family.”
Pretty well is an understatement. Lucarelli has won the yearly training title six times and has finished second 10 times, often behind McCanna, whom Lucarelli has replaced as the track’s career-leading trainer.
“We’re good friends and adversaries,” said McCanna, who has had a much smaller stable at Emerald Downs in recent years. “Our kids were about the same age, and we had a great little rivalry up there. But he’s tough; he’s a good trainer. We had some great battles up there, and I respect him for sure.”
Lucarelli has been consistently good for a couple decades at Emerald Downs, but last season he was great. He set the season record for wins with 81, smashing the previous mark by 15, and had a track-best 28% win rate (anything above 20% is very good).
The highlight came Sept. 7, when his horses won the first five races on the card. The five wins for the day tied a track and state record.
Lucarelli credited some of the success to his owners, who let the trainer race their horses at levels where they might get claimed (most horses races are claiming races; horses who run in them can be bought for the claiming price designated for that particular race).
“When you have owners who let you take the reins and do your job, and they’re not afraid to lose their horses by getting claimed, you can have a lot of success,” Lucarelli said. “We were being very aggressive, and things just clicked. Sometimes that happens, other times there are situations where you have ‘second-itis’ and you can’t win.
“I’ve had some owners say maybe you can repeat that or beat that. I said, ‘I’m going to try, but that is kind of crazy.’ “
Still going strong
Lucarelli said he loves his work and has no plans to retire soon, and no wonder, as he is again leading the trainer standings. He has 28 wins, 10 more than Jorge Rosales, his closest competition.
His success and ability to build relationships with owners is a big reason he has the largest stable at Emerald Downs.
“It doesn’t seem like he ever loses clients, and then he add clients here and there,” Withee said. “He’s really perceptive and watches training closely. He has owners who claim (horses), and he buys at sales. He does everything; he’s a full-service guy.”
Like he has done for many years, Lucarelli will train in Northern California and Arizona when the Emerald Downs season is over in October.
“If they ran eight or nine months a year here, I would never leave because this is home, but I don’t want to be a part-time trainer,” he said.
So he and Pam, his wife of 39 years, will head south in October. The couple had two sons. Michael, 27, lives in Oregon. Tony, the oldest, died of brain cancer at 16 in 2005.
Lucarelli has much smaller stables in Northern California and Arizona, and doesn’t contend for training titles there. But at Emerald, he is the trainer to beat. The only big thing he hasn’t accomplished locally is winning the Longacres Mile, the signature race in the Northwest. He came close in 2012 when Winning Machine lost by a head.
“I want to win the Mile, but I’m not going to lose sleep if I don’t,” said Lucarelli, who has had two horses race in the Breeders’ Cup. “If I’m 80 and retired and I haven’t won the Mile, I might say, ‘Shoot, I wanted to win the Mile,’ but then I’ll have a glass of wine and go to sleep. But it’s a race I want to win, and I hope to have a lot years to try and do that.”
He probably will get another chance Thursday night in the 85th running of the Mile as he is expected to saddle Elliott Bay for the race. Even if he never wins the race, he said he has done more than he would have dreamed possible.
“We’ve stuck to a good plan, and I don’t change a lot,” he said. “I try to train each horse individually, and I’ve had very good help over the years. I’ve got grooms right now that have been with me 20-plus years. I am proud of what we’ve done.”