12/28/2001 12:00AM

Rio Oro, 6, is back in business


ARCADIA, Calif. - The list of ailments that Rio Oro has overcome sounds more like a set of injuries that could plague an entire barn.

At one time or another, the 6-year-old Rio Oro has fought problems with tendons, ankles, knees, and feet.

Fortunately, his heart appears to be intact.

On Tuesday, Rio Oro starts in the $100,000 El Conejo Handicap at Santa Anita, a far cry from the $4,000 claimer he won at Bay Meadows last May. A gelding, Rio Oro was a four-time stakes winner at 2 and 3 in Arizona and California, but slumped into cheap claimers after a series of injuries and layoffs in the late 1990's. Remarkably, his career has turned around since he was claimed for $10,000 last summer at Del Mar by Bernie Schiappa of Las Vegas and trainer Frank Monteleone.

Since the claim, Rio Oro has won 3 of 4 starts, including the California Cup Sprint Starter Handicap for ex-claimers over the same 5 1/2 furlongs as the El Conejo.

"We wanted a horse we could run in the $5,000 starter handicap at Pomona," Monteleone said. "When I claimed him, I was sick to my stomach that day. He finished eighth."

Dr. Rick Arthur, a practicing veterinarian at Southern California tracks, has led the cheers for Rio Oro. Arthur bred Rio Oro in California, and owns his mare, Rio Tejo. Although Arthur does not treat Rio Oro, he has talked occasionally with Monteleone and has followed the gelding's career closely.

"It's great that an old class horse starts getting sharp again," Arthur said. "Even when he was getting beat, he was showing signs of talent. The horse always had ability. I'm tickled to death he's running well."

Rio Oro is not the only comeback story in his family. Rio Tejo won 2 of 11 starts racing in England and the United States, but faced a questionable future after suffering a cannon bone injury in the early 1990's.

Arthur stepped forward and bought Rio Tejo for $1 from Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stud Management. It was a rescue job. Arthur inserted five screws to stabilize the cannon bone, a successful surgery, and Rio Tejo has become a top producer of sprinters.

The success of Rio Oro has been a shock to Monteleone, who has been a Thoroughbred trainer for nine years. Previously, he had a stable of Quarter Horses at Los Alamitos.

Monteleone knew Rio Oro was on the upswing after equaling a track record of 1:01.60 for 5 1/2 furlongs at Bay Meadows on Oct. 7. The dream run continued with a two-length win in the California Cup Sprint Starter Handicap on Nov. 3 and a head loss to Radar Contact in the Albany Handicap at Golden Gate Fields on Dec. 1.

Monteleone realizes that Rio Oro's luck may eventually run out, forcing a retirement. He is hoping it will be later rather than sooner, but promises it will not end with another slide down the claiming divisions.