ARCADIA, Calif. -- Trainer Gary Sherlock said that when he bought Uncle Lino as a yearling, he took a shot on a colt who needed to grow up.
"He needed a couple of things to go right, and it did," Sherlock said.
That's also an apt description for Sherlock, who nearly died 20 years ago.
Sherlock, 70, now finds himself with one of the top 3-year-olds in the country in Uncle Lino, who will make his next start Saturday in a compelling edition of the Grade 2, $400,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. Sherlock appreciates where he's at because his chances of being here once were quite dire.
Sherlock in 1995 had a carotid artery dissection, in which a blood clot blocks off the flow from that key artery. The result is a stroke. Or worse.
"The odds were not good," Sherlock recalled at Santa Anita. "One out of four heal. I was the one."
Sherlock said that "for four months, it felt like I had a headache."
"I was in a room with the shades down, no television," he said. "For the first time in my life, I had to just stop."
He had been going since he hit the ground, born into the game. His father, William, was a jockey, and his mother, Mary, was a steward and a racing secretary. Sherlock grew up in Pleasanton in Northern California and worked in various jobs around the track as a youth and a young man.
He was drafted during the Vietnam War but failed his physical and returned to the track. Encouraged by a friend to move to Southern California, Sherlock got a job as an assistant trainer at Los Alamitos, working with Quarter Horses after being exclusively with Thoroughbreds until then.
By the time he left Los Alamitos 15 years later, Sherlock was the third-winningest trainer in track history, behind the legendary Blane Schvaneveldt and a guy named D. Wayne Lukas.
For the next 15 years, Sherlock had a small barn at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park and won a handful of races -- his best year was in 1989, when he won 11 races -- but he made a good living buying yearlings and then selling them as 2-year-olds, a process known as "pinhooking."
But after his serious medical scare in 1995, Sherlock stepped away from training. Once healthy, he stayed in the sport by selling equine insurance and workers' compensation insurance.
"I did that for 10 years," he said. "But you can't stay away."
Sherlock got back into training a decade later in 2005, buying a handful of yearlings, among them an Orientate filly for $37,000. Subsequently named Intangaroo, she won five times in 14 starts, including the Santa Monica Stakes at Santa Anita, the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs, and Ballerina at Saratoga, all Grade 1 races. She made $623,231 and was sold as a broodmare prospect for $1.8 million.
Sherlock now has 20 horses, including the filly Lost Bus, the winner of this year's Santa Monica.
Uncle Lino, a son of Uncle Mo, is, like Intangaroo, a bargain purchase. Sherlock bought him for a partnership for $52,000.
"His withers hadn't come up, and he was long in the pasterns," Sherlock said. "But he grew up perfectly."
Uncle Lino (pronounced LEE-no) is named for the uncle of Tom Mansor, who owns the colt along with Jim Glavin's Purple Shamrock Racing and Sherlock. Sherlock is the youngster of the trio.
"We're the Sunshine Boys," he said.
Uncle Lino made his first start last July at Del Mar, finishing second on a sloppy, sealed track, and didn't race again for four months.
"He came out of that race a little messed up behind," Sherlock said.
Uncle Lino was set to race during the fall meeting at Santa Anita but popped a splint. When he finally made it back to the races Nov. 29 at Del Mar, "he wasn't ready to run 6-1/2 furlongs, but he parked anyway," Sherlock said.
"I knew then he was really good," he said.
Uncle Lino then ran in a first-level allowance sprint at Santa Anita on Jan. 3, finishing a close third in a three-way photo.
In his most recent start, Uncle Lino finished second in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, losing to the highly regarded Mor Spirit by 1-1/2 lengths after stalking and then getting the best of pacesetter I Will Score.
Sherlock said the San Felipe is a means to an end. His focal point is the Santa Anita Derby on April 9.
"I've been pointing to the Santa Anita Derby for four months," he said. "This race should move him forward, and he should have no excuses next time.
"If he runs first or second in the Santa Anita Derby, we'll go to Kentucky. Right now, I'm just pointing for the Santa Anita Derby. After that, everything will take care of itself."