Frank Lucarelli and Junior Coffey use their experiences as professional athletes to be winners on the racetrack.
Frank Lucarelli always figured he would have a long career in professional sports.
He had a powerful right arm and dreams of playing in the major leagues. Those dreams were stoked when Lucarelli pitched Newport High School of Bellevue into the state championship in 1975, and when he was drafted in the 19th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I kind of wonder how far I could have gone in baseball if I had given it my whole attention,” Lucarelli said.
Not that he has much time to regret the past. He is too busy getting ready to defend his Emerald Downs training title, which he won last year with 52 victories.
The Auburn racetrack opens today for its 10th season, and one safe wager is that the 47-year-old Lucarelli will be among the leading trainers again. He has finished in the top three in victories six of the past seven seasons.
For Lucarelli and NFL veteran Junior Coffey, training horses is a natural combination of their athletic backgrounds and their love of working with the powerful, temperamental animals.
“I told my dad when I was young that I was going to pitch as long as I could and then begin training,” Lucarelli said. “In the back of my mind while I was pitching, I knew that horse racing and training was waiting.”
Lucarelli never made to it to the big show in baseball; his career ended after two seasons in the minor leagues. But the experience he gained playing another sport has proved invaluable.
Coffey can relate to that.
Emerald Downs in Auburn, first race @ 6 p.m.
Horse racing wasn’t on Coffey’s radar until he was a star running back for the University of Washington (1962-64), leading the Huskies to the 1964 Rose Bowl. His summer job was working on the cleanup crew at Longacres racetrack in Renton.
Coffey’s love of the sport didn’t diminish during seven seasons in the NFL, including leading the Atlanta Falcons in rushing in 1966 and 1967. He bought his first horses in 1970 while he was still in the NFL, and began his new career after leaving the league in 1971.
With a consistently high winning percentage, Coffey, 63, has been one of the area’s most respected trainers for decades.
Coffey, however, is not a threat to take away Lucarelli’s training title. He trains 12 horses at Emerald Downs, making his barn less than one-third the size of Lucarelli’s. But when it comes to getting a horse ready to run its very best, both are among the area’s finest.
Tending their athletesLucarelli’s and Coffey’s backgrounds might explain why they often use the word “athletes” when talking about horses. They treat their horses like athletes — albeit ones that are often high-strung and hard to handle.
“One of the keys to being a good trainer is understanding your horses,” Lucarelli said. “Every horse has a different personality.”
Lucarelli believes his baseball experience helps him devise training regimens.
“On a pitching staff, everyone has a different routine of what he wants to do between starts to get ready,” he said. “You need to treat horses the same way.”
Coffey says playing football helps him understand conditioning.
“As a football player, there were times I was overtrained,” he said. “There were times I was trained so hard that when the game came my legs were too tired.
A general plan that Lucarelli might have used last season for Billy Bowlegs, a mid-level claiming horse. This plan starts the day of his previous race and assumes he will be running in a one-mile race in two weeks.
Days 1-3: Time off to rest. The horse will be walked 45 minutes each day to keep his legs from tightening
Day 4: Jog a mile
Day 5: Half-mile jog, one-mile gallop
Day 6-8: 1 ½-mile gallops
Day 9: Rest day with some walking
Days 10-11: One-mile jog
Day 12: A brisk 2-furlong (quarter-mile) workout, with the horse galloping out a mile
Day 13: Rest day
Day 14: Race day. A gallop in the morning, followed by a visit to the paddock to let the horse know it’s race day. He is then inspected, cleaned up and led back to the paddock before his race.
“You need to train horses in a way that is compatible with each horse’s disposition — at least that’s my philosophy.”
A creative mind also comes in handy.
“With horses that are particularly high-strung, I have tried putting a goat in the stall with them,” Lucarelli said. “A lot of horses are much happier and calm down when they have a companion. I have also knocked down some boards in a stall, so horses could nuzzle up to each other. Some are used to being in a herd and they enjoy that.”
Devising a planLucarelli keeps a chart detailing the exact training each of his horses undergoes each day. Horses seldom race more than once a week and often go a few weeks or longer between races.
Each day follows a well-thought-out plan to get the horse into peak shape for his next race. A non-race day can range from resting (with some leisurely walking) to a hard workout.
“The chart I keep on the horses really comes in handy when you have a horse that is in a slump,” Lucarelli said. “You can look back and see what you were doing when the horse was successful.”
Young horses preparing for their first race need the most work, but experienced horses can also benefit. Mr. Phantom Slew, a horse Lucarelli claimed for $6,250 at Emerald Downs in September, is a perfect example.
Before an October race at Turf Paradise outside Phoenix, Mr. Phantom Slew became very tense. He got all sweaty and literally flipped in the paddock. His chance at victory was gone before the race began. He lost by more than 20 lengths.
Lucarelli knew he had some work to do.
“We gave him a couple of months off just to get that experience out of his head and to get his mind right,” Lucarelli said. “We then took him to the paddock every day for 15 days, so he could get used to race-day situations.”
When he returned to race, Mr. Phantom Slew was ready, winning four straight against progressively tougher competition.
“A good trainer can make an average horse good,” said jockey Gallyn Mitchell, Emerald Downs’ career-leading jockey in wins and earnings. “For example, he can take a sprinter and get him to stretch out some. A trainer can make a difference.”
Lines of communicationMaybe as important as the relationships trainers forge with horses are their relationships with their bosses — the owners.
While Coffey is successful, he says communication is one of his weaknesses and may keep him from getting more horses.
“I believe in being honest and up-front with my owners,” Coffey said. “But they don’t want to hear, ‘Your baby just isn’t that good.’ ”
Lucarelli said it’s important to enter horses in the right races — races they can win but that won’t put them in jeopardy of being claimed for less than they are worth. Owners need to have confidence the trainer is making the right decisions.
Communication with jockeys is also essential. Trainers often have regular jockeys they use and rely on the rider’s comments to help them make training decisions.
“It might not seem like it, but this really is a team sport,” Mitchell said. “When you get a trainer and a jockey who work well together, it’s a tough combination to beat.”
Despite all the work trainers put into their horses, they do not forget that it’s a business. They can’t afford to get too attached to a horse.
“Your job is to make as much as money as possible for your owner,” Lucarelli said. “So I don’t get attached.”
Well, maybe a little bit.
Take 8-year-old Cascade Casey, who finished second in the 1999 Gottstein Futurity. Lucarelli has trained the horse since he was “a baby” and owns him now.
“He owes me nothing,” Lucarelli said. “When I get the sense he doesn’t want to race anymore, I am going to find him a nice home somewhere.”
Seven days a weekOnce the Emerald Downs season starts, Lucarelli will take Mondays off.
For several months during Emerald Downs’ offseason, which began Sept. 21, Lucarelli had no days off. Not while trying to oversee about 30 horses who remained at Emerald Downs and more than 20 at Turf Paradise. When he wasn’t working at Emerald, he was in Arizona.
Coffee trains horses in Northern California during Emerald Downs’ offseason, but if he had his way, Emerald Downs’ season would be longer and he would stay in the Northwest.
“If you’re an owner, you want to keep a horse running while he is hot,” Coffee said. “I don’t want someone else to train my horse in Northern California and get all the accolades if he does well, when I did all the work to get him there.”
If that happened, there would be no guarantee the owner would bring the horse back to him, Coffey said. So, he heads south for the winter.
“It’s really expensive to live there and the training costs are a lot higher, but it’s what I have to do,” he said.
Lucarelli has a stable in Phoenix during Emerald’s offseason. He has an assistant there, but he goes down often.
Such is the life of a trainer. Their livelihood is based on performance. Although they make money from boarding the horses they train, to be successful their horses must do well. They get a percentage of their horses’ winnings, usually 10 percent.
“The board money just pays for expenses,” Coffey said. “To make money, you have to win some races.”
The thrill of victoryWinning means more than just making money. It validates all their work.
The great moments are when a horse runs like he was trained to.
“I put more pressure on myself now, but I think it’s even more of a thrill when I have a horse win,” Coffey said. “It’s a personal thrill between me and the horse.”
It is a feeling that Lucarelli experienced often last year.
“I love the sport and I love the competition,” he said. “It’s very exciting when a horse you’ve trained runs like you think it can and wins.”
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or email@example.com
|The Lucarelli file|
|Frank Lucarelli has been among the best trainers at Emerald Downs since it opened. He is second in career training victories at the track. Here is a tally of his annual wins and rankings since 1998:|
|The Coffey file|
|Junior Coffey makes the most of his limited number of starts each season. Following are his number of starts and victories the past four years:|