01/17/2005 12:00AM

Horses were Valpredo's true love


ARCADIA, Calif. - The word "pioneer" is tossed around a lot. Most of the time it lands on a person hardly worthy of the term. But in the case of John Valpredo, who witnessed close to a century of California history while making his mark in horses and agriculture, hailing him as a pioneer in both worlds is right on the mark.

Valpredo died last week at home on his Kern County farm near the southern San Joaquin Valley town of Mettler after a series of small strokes left him in a near-comatose state. Valpredo was 96, but it was no use telling him that, according to his son, Don Valpredo.

"My dad didn't want to hear it," Valpredo said Monday. "He never liked the idea of getting old. A friend expressed his condolences the other day and told me I didn't lose a father . . . I lost a brother, because that's the way my dad would always introduce me."

No sweat. Pioneers tend to play by their own rules, and John Valpredo was certainly true to his heritage. His father, Alfonso Valpredo, journeyed from the northern Italian town of Asti in the early 1900's to go to work for a winemaker in Southern California. In time, he was able to earn enough to bring his wife and first child to America as well. John Valpredo was born in Burbank, just north of Los Angeles, on Dec. 1, 1908.

The advent of Prohibition in the 1920's forced the Valpredos to turn from winemaking to farming, and to the untapped land of the San Fernando Valley, just over the hills from Los Angeles. Within a few years, however, the Great Depression began ravaging agricultural communities throughout the West.

It is hard to argue the pioneering credentials of a young John Valpredo. He responded to the challenge of the economy by venturing into the barren land of the Cactus Desert in central California in an attempt to build a future for his growing family.

"It was all sand dunes back then," Don Valpredo said. "And there were no guarantees. My dad had to drill for water. When he hit, it was like striking oil."

More than 70 years later, the legacy of such pioneers still pervades the San Joaquin Valley. Enterprising farmers descended upon the land in waves, turning it into the produce capital of America. Valpredo Farms was there at the beginning of its emergence, and today, the family business continues to thrive.

John Valpredo was a success in a number of enterprises besides agriculture - including stewardship of the water district and ownership of a thriving cotton ginning mill - and yet there was one endeavor he could never resist, no matter how great the risk. He loved raising Thoroughbreds.

"You have to remember, back then the San Fernando Valley was home to any number of horse ranches," Don Valpredo noted. "The Warner brothers had their place. Ed Janss had Conejo Ranch. When my dad, his father, and his brother finally had a few nickels they could rub together, they bought a couple horses. I still have the photo from what I think is their first winner, Miss Daunt, at Old Caliente in June of 1943."

Over the years, the bright colors of John Valpredo graced such stakes winners as Dimaggio, Star Ball, Lucie Manet, Purdue King, and Fifty Six Ina Row. The Valpredo trophy case includes mementos from the Yellow Ribbon Invitational, the Gamely Handicap, the Santa Margarita Handicap, the Hollywood Juvenile, the San Gorgonio Handicap, the Hoist the Flag Stakes, the La Canada Stakes, and the Triple Bend Handicap.

The list of Valpredo trainers included Red McDaniel, the California-based national champion of the early 1950's, as well as George Reeves, who held the contract of a young apprentice by the name of Shoemaker. But for the most part, the Valpredo horses ran in the names of unsung trainers who deferred to one man alone.

"Who ran the barn? Who marked the charts every day? Who told the shoer how to shoe the horses?" said Don Valpredo. "It was my dad.

"The feeling my dad had was best put once by Penny Tweedy," Valpredo continued. "She said, 'If you don't get excited seeing a foal you raised from a newborn finally make it to the races, or if you aren't excited by the sound that the mares make in the barn late at night - if those things don't stir you, then you don't belong in this game, because those are the only rewards guaranteed.'

"That was my dad. He just loved being around the horses. And to him, every horse was like a child."

A funeral for John Valpredo was scheduled to be held at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Bakersfield on Tuesday.

"In his heyday with the horses, when he was at the track, he would always come back to the ranch on Tuesdays, when there was no racing," Valpredo said. "You could set your watch by it.

"That's why I brought him home from the hospital on Tuesday, Jan. 4, instead of the day before," he added. "And that's why we're having his funeral on Tuesday, when we could have had it today. Because Tuesday is the day he goes home."