Don Valpredo was born to be a horseman.
Agriculture was the family business and remains so for the second generation Bakersfield-area farmer, but his passion is horses.
It started at age 4 when Valpredo’s father, John, got involved in horse racing and it has not ebbed over seven decades.
“I grew up with them, I loved them, I fed them, I mucked their stalls, I watered them,” Valpredo, 80, said of horses. “I literally have been in it from the ground up.
“After going to college and the service, I returned in 1966 and got on my own, raced by myself. The first horse I ever started won her first race. I was officially hooked then.”
Since then, Valpredo has gone on to win multiple stake races as an owner and breeder. He has spent more than 40 years on the board of every major horse racing and breeding organization in the state. He was inducted into the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association Hall of Fame in 2017.
Valpredo will be inducted into the Bob Elias Kern County Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 19.
“What makes this so special is I’m recognized by the local people,” said Valpredo. “When I go traveling and and it’s time to head back home, I say, 'I’ve got to go back to Bako.' People know I’m from Bakersfield.”
In fact, Valpredo is so proud of his hometown that in recent years he’s named horses honoring Bakersfield.
“I’ve had Back to Bako, Bako Sweets and Bakersfield Sound, named after the book (written by Bob Price),” he said.
To say Valpredo has been influential in the horse racing business would be an understatement.
He’s served two terms on the California Horse Racing Board from 1990-98 and on the Thoroughbred Owners of California Board from 1999-2011. He’s also been on the board of directors for the Breeders’ Cup and the Thoroughbred Owners of California. He is also on the board of the Jockey Club in New York.
One of Valpredo’s proudest accomplishments was helping establish the California Cup as a shining spotlight on California-bred racehorses. Known as the Donald Valpredo California Cup Sprint, it will have its 29th running in 2019.
“People have been racing horses since Ben Hur. It’s always been my horse can out run your horse,” he said. “It’s evolved. I’m proud to have served on many of the associations that have a lot of input in the racing game.”
During his time on the California Horse Racing Board, one of the things he pushed for was standardized saddlecloth colors, which remain in use today. Bettors, especially when watching a simulcast, can follow their choices much easier because each number corresponds to a particular color.
Betting, Valpredo said, is the lifeblood of horse racing, and he disagrees with those who think it’s on a downhill slide.
He said the big events are bigger than ever, but the smaller regular races don’t draw fans like they used to because fans no longer have to be at the track to lay down two bucks on a trifecta.
“The big grandstands, the huge facilities are dinosaurs,” he said. “Today you bet off your iPhone. It’s all legal. You can watch it on your iPad. The purses in horse racing are bigger than they’ve ever been.
“I look at the numbers every day. It’s what people bet that generates the money we run for. I look at Santa Anita. They will handle midweek, six million a day bet. Probably $800,000 was on track. The rest was off track, out of state.”
And the big races, the ones that draw large crowds, have seen purses increase dramatically due to easy betting.
“They just had a race in Florida called the Pegasus Cup for $7 million,” he said. “They have the Dubai World Cup for $10 million. When I grew up, the first $100,000 race was the Santa Anita handicap. Today it’s a million dollar race.”
Valpredo continues to farm and raises horses on 20-acre facility south of Bakersfield.
“We have a beautiful little facility, but it’s just for me and my horses,” he said. “I don’t do outside work. We’re raising some very nice horses.”
While he has many memories of horses, wins and loses, he said it’s the people that make the sport.
“What I’ve most enjoyed about the horse racing world is all the people I’ve met,” he said. “It’s a cast of characters from all over, all walks of life.”