Updated on 09/16/2011 8:35AM

He may not be top choice, but Rio Oro is heart of the matter


ARCADIA, Calif. - When an owner drops in a claim of $10,000 for a horse, there is often a surprise or two when the horse returns to the barn.

But when trainer Frank Monteleone looked at Rio Oro in the Del Mar paddock in summer 2001, the gelding's problems were fairly obvious. "He had everything - a tendon, he looked bad - I didn't want to claim him."

Monteleone was overruled by owner Bernie Schiappa, who said, "It's only money."

They made the claim, Rio Oro ran poorly, and the future looked bleak. However, along with Rio Oro's physical problems, he always had a touch of class. It soon reemerged. Rio Oro won his next three starts and placed in three stakes. On Saturday he will try to return to the winner's circle when he goes six furlongs in the $150,000 California Cup Sprint.

The Sprint is the sixth race on the Cal Cup card, and while Rio Oro is not the most likely winner - the race sets up for late-runner Stormy Jack - there may not be a more courageous horse on the card. Rio Oro has overcome a heavy build, a broken splint bone, an old tendon, colic, and other problems to win 14 of 31 starts.

"He just keeps surprising me," Monteleone said, "With all his nagging injuries - he has a million of them - he's doing good now. He's healthy."

Rio Oro, a 7-year-old gelding by Memo, is anything but a cinch in the Sprint versus seven rivals. In addition to the late-mover Stormy Jack and front-runner Rio Oro, speedsters include Unlimited Value, El Dorado Shooter, and Con Quixote. The late-runners are McCordnskuba, Treasured Note, and Ride and Shine. Stoney, who may have been favored in the Sprint, opted for the Starter, to be run as the fourth race.

Rio Oro is dropping in class after setting the pace to the furlong pole in the Grade 1 Ancient Title Handicap one month ago. "He was in against the nuts," Monteleone said.

It's not easy Saturday, either. Three other speed horses are drawn outside Rio Oro, but Monteleone insists jockey Kent Desormeaux is not obligated to put him on the lead.

"There's a lot of gas in the race, and everyone seems to think he needs the lead. But in the mornings, he wants to chase other horses," Monteleone said.

Rio Oro, sired by Memo, has not won in seven starts since winning the Cal Cup Starter last fall, but he is in peak form now and an obvious contender if he can avoid an early pace duel. Win or lose, Schiappa and Monteleone have more to look forward to with Rio Oro's siblings.

His 3-year-old full brother Giovannetti runs in the fourth race, the Starter won by Rio Oro last year. Giovannetti was claimed two starts back for $20,000 and has already won once for Schiappa and Monteleone.

They also purchased Giovannetti's yearling full brother Now You're Talking for $50,000 earlier this year. Giovannetti's 2-year-old half-sister Runaway Mother is in training in northern California. She was offered for $250,000 but Monteleone and Schiappa turned her down. A Bertrando filly, she was scratched at the gate from her only scheduled start earlier this year.

Rio Oro has his work cut out in the Sprint. Drawn directly to his outside is Unlimited Value, who has won 6 of 12 for owner-breeder John Harris and trainer Carla Gaines. The 6-year-old gelding by Present Value was away from the races for 17 months until he returned in a $40,000 claimer in August, which he won by three lengths in fast time.

"He bled pretty badly in that race, but he's breezed well in between and scoped clean," Gaines said, offering a valid excuse for Unlimited Value's most recent fourth-place finish at Bay Meadows. Unlimited Value will be ridden by Pat Valenzuela, and might be the speed of the field.

If the race unfolds on the track like it does on paper, Stormy Jack may rally for the win. A late-running

5-year-old, Stormy Jack has won eight races and $587,673 from 20 starts. He finished second in this race last year, and is trained by seven-time Cal Cup stakes winner Bob Baffert.

"I used to point for the Cal Cup, but we've kind of switched focus," Baffert said. Baffert won the 1991 Sprint with Letthebighossroll and has four entrants on this Cal Cup card. Stormy Jack appears his most likely winner.

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