04/29/2010 11:00PM

Uncle Don rewards owners' patience


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was always a gamble worth taking, especially for three men with time on their side.

When Uncle Don, a gelding, arrived at owner Don Valpredo's farm near Bakersfield in 2008, his racing future looked bleak, and his right front tendon looked just as bad. There was talk of making him a pony.

Friends Tony Romero, Alan Rodriguez, and Ulises Olguin had a different perspective. Uncle Don deserved another chance, they thought, and they were ready to make the commitment. The previous owners offered them the horse and a chance.

Two years later, Uncle Don's career as a pony is still on hold. His comeback, however, is very much underway. On April 24, Gold Rush Day, Uncle Don won his third consecutive race in the Grey Memo Stakes at Hollywood Park.

Romero, best known as the regular exercise rider for the seven-time Grade 1 winner Lava Man, was in the winner's circle, beaming. Of all the people involved, he knows Uncle Don best, as the man who grooms him and rides him during morning exercise and confers with trainer Richard Rosales.

For Olguin, who manages Valpredo's farm, and Rodriguez, who works in the farm's office, there was the pride of seeing such a lengthy project succeed.

"He ran beautifully," Olguin said Friday, recalling the race. "I knew he could run."

The win has led to talk of a stakes appearance later this year, an idea that seemed farfetched in early 2008, when Uncle Don's tendon injury surfaced after eighth- and 10th-place finishes in 2007.

From Olguin's perspective, the problem seemed manageable, to an extent.

"We had to blister it and work with it and make it tight," he said. "I come from Caliente, and you deal with these problems all the time."

Uncle Don returned to racing Jan. 30 of this year, finishing second by a neck at 26-1 in a $25,000 claiming race for maidens at Santa Anita. After finishing second by a length in a similar race Feb. 15, he won a maiden claimer by 6 1/2 lengths March 7 and a starter allowance by 3 1/2 lengths March 31.

In the Grey Memo Stakes, restricted to statebreds who were eligible for a first-condition allowance race, Uncle Don was the 2-1 favorite. Ridden by regular rider Joel Rosario, Uncle Don led throughout and won by 1 1/2 lengths, increasing his earnings to $71,520 this year.

"I didn't expect he'd run that way," Romero said, looking back on the three-race winning streak. "I thought he'd run cheap."

Uncle Don was not bred to run cheap. Uncle Don is by Lemon Drop Kid out of Soviet Problem, the 1994 California-bred Horse of the Year who ran second in that year's Breeders' Cup Sprint. Uncle Don was bred by Valpredo, John Harris, and Rob Johnson and raced for them and trainer Doug O'Neill in 2007.

The comeback impressed Harris, who owns Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif.

"Ulises proposed giving him a try," Harris said. "Nine out of 10 that try it don't work, but with Uncle Don it worked. Ulises is a real horseman."

Rosales trains Uncle Don, a 5-year-old gelding, and is stabled adjacent to O'Neill, for whom Romero rides in the mornings. Friday, Romero finished his work for O'Neill and then focused on Uncle Don, jogging him for the first time since Friday's race.

While Romero does the bulk of the daily work, he consults with Rosales about some aspects of training. The next goal, they agree, is an allowance race against open company, possibly on grass, then perhaps a stakes.

"I think the owners are real pragmatic about it," Rosales said. "They'll take it step by step. They've showed incredible patience."

Romero is already expecting more. He said he believes Uncle Don has yet to reach his potential.

"He's still doing pretty good, not 100 percent, maybe 80 percent," he said. "I think he can be a stakes horse. He's bred for that."

Romero, 37, displays his allegiance on the back window of his SUV. He has a custom-made sign that reads "Tony Romero, Exercise Rider Lava Man."

"Lava Man was my favorite horse," he said.

A few more performances from Uncle Don similar to the Grey Memo Stakes and Romero's car could need to be updated.