At least he’ll always have the lawn chair.
Don Lucarelli got his first taste of Saratoga Race Course almost 46 years ago. His uncle and aunt brought him there on Aug. 18, 1972, and Spanish Riddle broke a track record — a record that you’ll see printed in your program on opening day next Friday, provided there’s a six-furlong race on the main track. At that moment, Lucarelli, now 66, “caught the bug.”
These days, the 1970 Mont Pleasant High School graduate and 1975 Siena College grad has access to the grandest seats at Saratoga, by virtue of his role as a co-managing partner for Starlight Racing, an ownership group that competes at the highest level of thoroughbred racing in North America.
Wait, make the Starlight management part past tense.
On June 30, Lucarelli officially divested himself of management responsibility, as well as shareholder involvement in future Starlight racehorse purchases. It was an amicable split with his co-manager and friend Jack Wolf, rooted in a strong desire by Lucarelli to spend more time with his family and the construction supply company, Bellevue Builders, that catapulted him into racehorse ownership in the first place.
It’s a measure of the demands of the ever-growing partnership trend at the top end of the sport that Lucarelli, who lived the dream of a lifetime when he signed on with Starlight in 2004, would step away.
But it’s also a measure of how seriously he took his responsibility as one of the faces of Starlight.
“I was stretching myself too thin,” he said on Thursday afternoon. “I mean, thank God it grew and got so successful. But if I can’t give 110 percent to it, then I’m not going to do it. That’s not fair to the partners or myself.”
So Lucarelli and his wife Barbara, his high school sweetheart, will gravitate to their spot, a collection of lawn chairs in the shade on that patch of grass just outside the entrance to the jockeys’ room behind the grandstand.
But they’ll be in their Starlight box seats sometimes, too, since the Lucarellis still co-own any of the few dozen horses still racing — or getting ready to, if they’re part of this year’s 2-year-old crop — that carry the familiar blue-and-yellow silks of Starlight Racing and its offshoot, StarLadies. When those babies and the rest are retired, the Lucarellis, who split the year between homes in Duanesburg and Florida, will be out entirely.
For now, Don will no longer be the main shaker of what he calls the back end of the operation.
Besides making racing decisions with Wolf, Lucarelli was responsible for accounting, drumming up business and interaction with the partners.
In 2000, Wolf and his wife Laurie founded Starlight Stables, which became Starlight Racing in June of 2004 when Lucarelli joined.
Two years later, they were in the Kentucky Derby.
Alas, Keyed Entry finished last of 20 behind Barbaro, but the Lucarellis didn’t have to wait long for the horse who would be No. 1 (to No. 1A Shanghai Bobby) in their hearts.
The 2-year-old filly Octave won the 2006 Grade II Adirondack for their first victory of any kind at Saratoga, which was even more poignant for a family that was still grieving the death of their son-in-law in a snowmobile crash that winter.
“She’s No. 1 in our family,” Don Lucarelli said. “She was really special.”
The following year, Octave won the Grade I Mother Goose at Belmont Park and the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga, putting her in contention for an Eclipse Award won by Belmont Stakes winner Rags to Riches. A championship for a Starlight horse would have to wait.
And Shanghai Bobby was worth the wait. He was named for Wolf’s friend, Bob Burton, an airline pilot whose routes frequently took him to Shangai and who introduced Wolf to Lucarelli at a party in Lake George that led to their partnership a year later.
In 2012, Shanghai Bobby won the Grade II Hopeful at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to clinch an Eclipse Award.
“I had the whole family out there [at the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita Park] with me, and, with the trip he had, it looked like he was going to pack it in, and then he hung tough,” Lucarelli said.
By last summer, Lucarelli knew he wanted to get out of the racehorse management business, and told Wolf as much in August.
Lucarelli and his 13-year-old grandson Andrew, who was a baby when his father died six months before Octave’s Adirondack victory, are inseparable at Saratoga. Lucarelli also has two granddaughters, 3-year-old Gabriella and Olivia, who was born on Super Bowl Sunday this year.
Lucarelli said Wolf was "a little shell-shocked," but gracious, when he gave him the news.
“We have a lot of good memories, and an opportunity to meet a lot of great people who we never would’ve crossed paths with,” Lucarelli said. “Jack and Laurie, we’re very grateful to have met them, and for them to want to take us on as partners was, is and still will be very special for Barb and I. We got to meet guys like Todd Pletcher and Frankie Brothers, and see what they do and how they do it.”
And as swan songs go, OK, I’d say winning a Triple Crown meets a standard.
“You try to go out on top,” Lucarelli said with a chuckle.
He has always taken pride and gratification in bringing a spotlight to his hometown, where people are passionate about racing. As I walked with Lucarelli to Saratoga’s “champagne room” after Octave’s Adirondack, he said the win was for all the people back at the Schenectady OTBs, something he emotionally echoed when Shanghai Bobby won the BC Juvenile, days after Hurricane Sandy slammed New York and New Jersey.
It was pretty cool to see my Octave Adirondack story tacked to the wall in the Boulevard Bowl bar a few months later, and Lucarelli says he still sees Shanghai Bobby articles around town.
“It’s special, all these years, that these people have been able to experience this, too, to have horses of that caliber,” Lucarelli said. “But that’s the whole fun of it, that everybody can feel a part of it.”
Mike Lakow, the racing secretary at all three New York Racing Association tracks from 1995 to 2005, has been re-hired by NYRA to be the associate racing secretary at Saratoga and the racing secretary for all meets at Aqueduct.
“With Mike’s hire, and the addition of Pat Pope at Belmont Park, NYRA has now filled out our racing office with some of the most experienced and knowledgeable officials involved in the game today,” NYRA senior vice president of racing operations Martin Panza said in a NYRA release. “Their collective experience, combined with the talent that exists in the office, will serve our horsemen and women well moving forward.”
The 61-year-old Lakow, who has worked in a variety of jobs in the racing industry, was most recently the agent for Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano.