08/22/2006 11:00PM

By any name a hard-tryer


DEL MAR, Calif. - It takes a brave soul right now to run a mile on the turf against West Coast hotshot Aragorn. An Irish son of Giant's Causeway, trained by Neil Drysdale, Aragorn has been on his "A" game all year long, and comes into the Del Mar Breeders' Cup Mile this Saturday off wins in the Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood and the nine-furlong Eddie Read Handicap at Del

"There's no question about the brilliance of Drysdale's horse," said Don Valpredo, a second-generation California owner and breeder. "I mean, that horse is awesome. But I think we need to give our horse a chance to see if he can rise to that level. The timing is right. The conditions are right. And it seems to be the distance he prefers."

Valpredo can be excused for his virulent case of positive thinking. After all, he not only bred and owns the 5-year-old gelding El Don, he also answers to the same name, although he insists it wasn't his idea.

"No, that was Harris," referring to John Harris, co-breeder and co-owner of El Don. "And I think it was somebody at his farm that gelded El Don. It sure wasn't my idea."

Still, it wasn't necessarily a bad idea, especially now that California-bred 5-year-old geldings seem to be all the rage (see Lava Man). Valpredo gets the credit for finding El Don's dam, In Prime Time, in a mixed auction at the old Hollywood Park sales pavilion, circa 1980.

"I remembered the family, and how terribly fast they were," Valpredo said. "And I'd seen In Prime Time win going down the hill at Santa Anita. I didn't think I'd have quite enough to get her, so I asked Harris if he wanted to go halves. He said fine, but let's hold it down to around $25,000."

As Valpredo describes it, the ensuing conversation went something like . . .

"Partner, we got the mare."

"Great. How much did you spend?"

"Oh, it was around $38,000."


"Well, you said go to $25,000 for your half."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know, but that's what I did."

As bargains go, that $38,000 wasn't bad. In Prime Time gave them 10 foals, including Timed Perfectly, who produced El Don at the age of 18, and Nopro Blema, a daughter of Dimaggio who produced the outstanding filly Soviet Problem.

"I loved In Prime Time because she was by Boldnesian," Valpredo said. "He was a phenomenal horse. I saw him win the [1963] Santa Anita Derby, and he broke down in the only race he lost. Of course, he went on to sire Bold Reasoning, who sired Seattle Slew. Boldnesian's stallion career and his racing career were both cut short, but I remembered his brilliance, and I always wanted a Boldnesian mare."

El Don's pedigree also reeks of Del Mar history. His sire, Cee's Tizzy, bagged two of his three wins at Del Mar before retiring to sire Tiznow, among others. El Don' s female family traces to Patch, winner of the 1950 Del Mar Futurity under Johnny Longden. And while Pretense, the sire of Timed Perfectly, is known primarily as a world-class middle-distance runner (he beat up on Native Diver in races like the Santa Anita Handicap and American Handicap), he was sent forth by Charlie Whittingham for one last hurrah during the summer of 1968 to win Del Mar's Bing Crosby Handicap in 1:07.80.

"Pretense is that rara avis, a fast stayer," wrote Daily Racing Form's Charles Hatton at the time. "These two qualities are so infrequently wrapped in the same horsehide this has become almost a contradiction in terms."

El Don has been trained from the beginning by Marty Jones, who has pretty much established himself in his own right, even though the heady reputations of his father, Gary Jones, and grandfather, Farrell Jones, still linger.

"He isn't his dad, and he isn't his grandfather," Valpredo said. "But I think his style may be better suited for today's racing than either of those two gentlemen.

"In their day, the calendar would prescribe when to give a horse a break. Today, you have to know when to do it, because the calendar never ends. In the case of El Don, he simply said to me last year that we needed to take the horse home for 90 days."

After going through his conditions, El Don came of age in the 2005 Tiznow Stakes on the Hollywood Park main track, splitting the major stakes winners Unfurl the Flag and Greg's Gold, then went on to take back-to-back grass races at Del Mar and Bay Meadows.

Valpredo and Harris squeezed one more race out of El Don last November in the Cal Cup Mile, on the signature day for the California breeding industry, but it was a bridge too far. El Don trailed home 10th, then got his holiday.

He came back in May of 2006 like a tiger, winning the San Matean Handicap at Bay Meadows right off the bench and then putting up a good fourth to The Tin Man in the American Handicap at Hollywood. In his last start, El Don won the California Dreamin' Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the Del Mar grass. Whether that makes him ready for Aragorn remains to be seen. Whatever happens, Valpredo is ready with his reaction.

"When he runs well, his name is El Don," the owner said. "When he doesn't, it's Eldon."