02/04/2010 12:00AM

Mambo Meister takes his owners to the top

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It is a textbook underdog tale. A group of racing fans pool their money, buy a weanling for $12,500, watch it develop, and next thing they know, they're running with the big boys.

For the Quantum Racing Team partnership, seeing Mambo Meister walk into the starting gate for the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., will be just another in a series of unexpected thrills. The 5-year-old gelding has taken the partners, some of them racing novices, on quite a ride already, winning five stakes and banking more than $335,000.

"Our story is about the common man getting involved at the lower level and watching him go right up the ladder," said Chris Pallas, a Ft. Lauderdale businessman who manages the partnership. "It's been a challenge and a great thrill all at once."

Mambo Meister, with Kent Desormeaux to ride, will be facing heavily favored Quality Road and eight other older horses Saturday in the $500,000 Donn. The Donn is the racing highlight of a huge sporting weekend in south Florida, where on Sunday evening the Super Bowl will be played at Sun Life Stadium, located less than 10 miles southwest of Gulfstream.

"There will be a lot of people in town for the game, so we'd love to see the horse put on a great show for them," Pallas said.

A son of King Cugat, who did his best work on grass, Mambo Meister has evolved into a versatile runner who has posted triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures on all three surfaces: dirt, turf, and synthetics.

"It's like having gold, having a horse as versatile as him," said Phil Gleaves, who has trained Mambo Meister at Calder throughout the gelding's 24-race career. "They don't come along very often, where, at this level, they can handle all three surfaces. It's a wonderful position to be in because it gives us so many options."

Pallas, a 56-year-old New York native and a pharmacist by trade, was drawn into the partnership in 2005 by his longtime friend and racetrack buddy Raymond Juliano.

"Ray had been a client of J.R. Cavanaugh's, and J.R. asked Ray if he was interested in this little King Cugat weanling he had bred," Pallas said. "One thing led to another, and pretty soon we had all these other people interested, too. It's been really neat the way the whole thing has evolved."

Cavanaugh, an Ocala breeder who has been in the business for more than 40 years, retained a minor interest in Mambo Meister after selling him to the partnership, which, besides Pallas and Juliano, also includes Alan and Dianne Collins, Dominic DeBellis, Greg Jacobsmeyer, John Lopardo, and Martha Magliacane.

In 2009, Mambo Meister enjoyed his most productive season so far. He was second in the Grade 3 Miami Mile, won back-to-back minor stakes at Calder, then was second to Justenuffhumor in the Grade 2 Fourstardave at Saratoga. After a tough-trip fifth in the at Calder, earning a 100 Beyer.

Mambo Meister then capped his year by earning a 101 Beyer when finishing fifth, beaten just two lengths, in the on Jan. 10 at Gulfstream.

"He certainly wasn't tired after that last race," Gleaves said. "All things considered, he ran a very good race that day. He was down on the inside, which wasn't the most favorable place to be that particular day, and I think the one-turn mile hasn't been his greatest asset. Hopefully, he can move up off that effort."

Gleaves, an affable 52-year-old Englishman who worked closely under Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens for nine years before going out on his own, has not maintained the level of success he enjoyed during the first six years of his career (1986-1991), when stable earnings averaged more than $1 million annually. Part of his career struggles have involved his decision to be the primary caregiver to his son, Schuyler, now 10.

"When Schuyler was 3 1/2, I made the decision to stay in Miami year round because I didn't want to be bouncing all around the country with him at that age," said Gleaves, who trained such standouts as Wise Times, Devil On Ice, Evening Kris, and Phantom Jet in those early years.

"I definitely made the right decision. It has given Schuyler great stability, which he really needed, and frankly, not a lot of owners are looking to send horses to south Florida for the summer. There's been a definite trade-off there, although now that my son is older, I'm giving serious thought to us going to Saratoga this summer, hopefully to expand my horizons again."

Quantum Racing and Gleaves gave serious consideration to bypassing the Donn to run Mambo Meister instead in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, a $300,000 race on the Saturday undercard, but the larger purse and the fact that there appears to be one solid favorite in each race - Quality Road in the Donn and Court Vision in the Gulfstream Park Turf - were among the deciding factors.

"In huge races like these, you're almost always going to find a horse better than you," Pallas said. "But you never know. Sometimes you get lucky, and there are worse things than being a slight underdog. All I know is this horse has given many people a lot of joy and good times, and hopefully he has more in store for all of us."