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At One Time, All He Touched Wasn't Gold

Horse racing: Hofmans once doubted whether he could remain a trainer, much less handle giant-killers such as Touch Gold and Alphabet Soup.

June 09, 1997|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ELMONT, N.Y. — Thirteen years ago, trainer David Hofmans' barn was down to four horses and he was on the verge of a career change, if not a breakdown. A sales job of some sort seemed like an alternative.

Hofmans reached for the bootstraps, spent several years in therapy, and now, in less than a year, has hauled off two of the biggest prizes in racing: victories in the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Belmont Stakes. Alphabet Soup won the Classic last fall at Woodbine, upsetting Cigar, and Hofmans, 54, saddled Touch Gold on Saturday to win the Belmont, thwarting Silver Charm's bid for a Triple Crown sweep.

All this success might not have happened had Hofmans, depressed and virtually out of horses, hadn't picked up the Daily Racing Form one day in 1984.

"I was sitting there reading it," Hofmans said Sunday morning outside the barn at Belmont Park. "It hit me that all my contemporaries were winning all the races. Then something sort of clicked. I said to myself, 'I can do that.' "

Timing is everything. Georgia Ridder, long a fixture on the Southern California racing landscape, was planning to revitalize her stable after the deaths of her husband, the publisher Ben Ridder, and their trainer, Gordon Campbell. She tapped Hofmans, mainly because of his patience with horses and a congenial personality.

It was for Georgia Ridder that Hofmans won the Breeders' Cup Classic, and that victory led him to Austrian-born Frank Stronach, the Canadian auto-parts magnate. In January, Stronach became a partner with Ridder in the ownership of Alphabet Soup, and he came by Hofmans' barn one morning to discuss sending him a few horses. Stronach owns hundreds, and with the exception of the sheiks, might have more horses than anybody in the world.

One of three horses that Stronach sent Hofmans in January was Touch Gold. He was an immature colt, a son of Deputy Minister and the Buckpasser mare Passing Mood, who had shown promise while winning one of four starts as a 2-year-old at Woodbine. One of Stronach's Canadian trainers, Danny Vella, trained Touch Gold in the beginning.

Hofmans got to know Stronach better on April 20, after Touch Gold, in his second start for his California trainer, won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. The Kentucky Derby was less than two weeks off, and in a dining room at the track, people were swarming around the owner and the trainer, encouraging them to go on to Churchill Downs.

"What do you want to do?" Stronach asked Hofmans.

"I think the Derby is too soon for this horse," Hofmans said. "I think we should aim for the Preakness, and maybe the Belmont after that. The Preakness is two weeks later than the Derby, and the horse could use the extra time."

"Then that's what we will do," Stronach said.

Hofmans recalled this conversation Sunday.

"Mr. Stronach is the kind of a man who makes a decision and then sticks by it," Hofmans said. "Every time we talked after that day, he didn't waver. If anybody was wavering, it might have been me."

The Derby was bypassed, of course, and Touch Gold might have won the Preakness. He stumbled badly leaving the gate, was boxed in much of the way and came back from a fourth-place finish by less than two lengths with a dirty nose and a new legion of followers. Now, after his three-quarter-length victory over Silver Charm in the Belmont, Hofmans thinks Touch Gold is the best 3-year-old in the country. The colt will continue to race with the fiberglass patch for a cracked hoof, which he suffered in the Preakness.

The first three finishers in the Belmont--Free House was third, beaten by 1 3/4 lengths--were on a plane out of New York on Sunday morning. After Silver Charm was dropped off in Louisville, Ky., where he will resume training after a week's rest, Touch Gold and Free House were delivered to California, where they train at Hollywood Park.

None of their trainers is naming specific races, but the obvious spots are the $500,000 Swaps at Hollywood Park on July 13, the $1-million Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park in New Jersey on Aug. 3 and the $750,000 Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 23. There are rumors that the purses at Hollywood Park and Saratoga might be enhanced if the Big Three show up.

Hofmans relishes the chance for this rivalry to resume. Instead of ducking horses, he wants to join them.

"Where the other horses run will have something to do with where we run," he said. "There's some good interest that's developed. The fact that we had 70,000 fans at the Belmont was wonderful. We'd like to keep this interest going."

Alphabet Soup, who was sidelined by a wrenched ankle, may return to the races toward the end of the Hollywood Park season, or at least by the Del Mar meet that opens July 23. One long-range scenario would have these two stablemates battling the others in the $4-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park on Nov. 8.

Toughing out the mid-1980s has paid off for Hofmans. "I was burned out," he said. "It was middle-age nuttiness. Sometimes I couldn't even get to the barn in the mornings. There was a real downward spiral. I was like a dog chasing its own tail there for a while."

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