Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Veteran Hofmans Still Fishing For His Next Big One

It’s been a few years since 77-year-old trainer David Hofmans has had a nice young horse in his barn, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to handle one.

Big Fish, a 3-year-old California-bred by Mr. Big, was already a stakes winner on the turf before entering the starting gate in last Saturday’s $200,000 California Cup Derby, a 1 1/16 mile contest on the dirt course at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. Despite a challenging trip, the colt pulled off a 1 1/2-length victory with ease.

“I thought he preferred the turf, but since he was a Cal-bred we thought we’d take advantage of that,” Hofmans said after the race. “He breezed well over (the dirt), the other day with Juan (Hernandez) and seemed to get over it well. He’s just maturing. This horse is just now coming into himself. I think we have a better future going forward.

“I dream all the time, it’s the only reason I get up in the morning. We’ll see what happens, how he comes out of it and go from there.”

A week on from Big Fish’s performance, Hofmans has found no reason to cut that dream short. The colt could head north next to run in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, contested over nine furlongs on the synthetic surface. 

With 10 points offered toward the Kentucky Derby, the El Camino Real Derby could be Big Fish’s first step on the road to Churchill Downs. 

“If he continues to improve, we’ll consider it,” Hofmans said coyly. 

Big Fish put in a big stretch run to win the California Cup Derby under Juan Hernandez

The veteran horseman knows better than to start counting his chickens this early. Hofmans’ record speaks for itself: three Breeders’ Cup wins, a Belmont Stakes, and a Queen’s Plate are just the highlights of his 1,072 victories. 

“When you start getting older people think you forget how to train horses,” Hofmans said, laughing. “I think I have a pretty good reputation, but maybe they don’t like the old school trainers. Maybe they think I’m stubborn and opinionated!”

A Southern California mainstay since his first win there in 1973, Hofmans probably has a right to be a little bit opinionated. However, the fact that his newest employee has been with him eight years suggests he is neither opinionated nor stubborn — or if he is, it doesn’t make him difficult to work for. In fact, Hofmans’ barn foreman has been on the payroll for 30 years, and Big Fish’s owner, Legacy Ranch, has been with Hofmans for nearly 50 years. 

“These guys are horsemen,” Hofmans said of his staff. “I go to them sometimes to ask their opinions, and when they come to me for something I never disregard what they say. I think they respect that, and it makes them really want to be involved.”

Hofmans didn’t grow up in racing, so his journey to the track was a bit circuitous. His father brought him to the track while he was growing up in Los Angeles, and he met future Hall of Fame trainer Gary Jones in one of his classes at Pasadena City College.

That led to a job with Jones’ father, the legendary California trainer Farrell “Wild Horse” Jones. The elder Jones had been a Quarter Horse jockey in his youth, earning the nickname with his “do anything to win” tactics, like hooking his arm over other riders or hitting them with his whip. Farrell Jones also galloped Seabiscuit in the 1930s, and was the leading trainer in California for many years.

“That was a crazier time,” Hofmans said. “He had some innovative ideas, and some very out there ideas. The man was very particular about his details, to a fault, but it helped me learn that you’re only as good as your weakest link. 

“He and Gary a lot of times were in competition with each other about what to do with the horses, and I was the mediator. That didn’t always work out too well for me!”

When Bobby Frankel moved out West, it gave Farrell Jones serious competition for the leading trainer titles he’d dominated for so long. 

“They used to hook up and try to be leading trainer, because Farrell Jones was the king around here until Frankel showed up,” Hofmans recalled. “I think it affected Jones more because he was so competitive. I didn’t think that was so important, the leading trainer thing. I didn’t care about that other ego stuff. I just did what I was told. Well — sometimes. Not all the time!”

By 1972, Hofmans was ready to start thinking about going out on his own. Instead, Frankel offered him a job taking a small group of horses up north on the California fair circuit, and Hofmans jumped at the chance. It would only be a five-month gig, but with eight horses and basically carte blanche over where to place them, Hofmans knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up. 

“I won with every horse,” Hofmans said. “It was a really good way to start out, because I had someone looking over my shoulder who was a tremendous horseman, yet I was still on my own, sort of like a father thing. I knew he had my back if I needed advice, but he mostly left me alone to make the decisions.”

When Hofmans came back to Southern California he started training under his own name, and won his first race in 1973. 

While he’s saddled plenty of good horses since then, his favorite will probably always be the namesake of Legacy Ranch, His Legacy. The 1985 gelding won 14 of his 47 career starts, racing through his 9-year-old season and earning $420,925.

“He was just a little cheap Cal-bred, and we’d run him for $25,000 or $30,000, but he was part of my life for six or seven years here at the track,” Hofmans said. “He won the Cal Cup Starter Handicap three times. The last time, we knew we were going to retire him after, and he was coming down the stretch and he grabbed the lead. My son and I were standing next to each other and looked over, and we were both crying. He was just a wonderful horse who tried every single time.”

One of Hofmans’ other training highlights was saddling Alphabet Soup to win the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic. 

“He wasn’t the best horse, but he tried every single time, and I knew one day he was gonna win a big race or two because he tried so hard,” Hofmans said. “I remember the San Antonio, with Chris Antley riding. They turned into the stretch and Alphabet Soup was in front. Soul of the Matter took the lead, passed him by about a half-length, maybe three-quarters, then all of a sudden at the wire there’s Alphabet Soup’s head. Antley comes back and he’s crying, he was sort of an emotional guy anyway, but he said, ‘Dave, I didn’t do this. That horse got a half a length on us and this guy just threw himself at the wire.’”

By fall, Chris McCarron got the mount on Alphabet Soup and rode him in the Classic.

“Chris and I talked at the Breeders’ Cup, he said, ‘You know, if I can just get his head just in front at the 3/16ths pole, he may be gutsy enough not to let anybody pass him. And that’s exactly how it happened that day, he just sticks his head down and digs in. He had Louis Quatorze on the inside, Cigar on outside; they were better horses but he just would not give in. He had a heart bigger than his body.”

Alphabet Soup (left) and Louis Quatorze battle to the wire, along with Cigar, in the ’96 Classic (Breeders’ Cup photo)

Perhaps slightly less well-known is the story of Dramatic Gold, owned by John Mabee. The 17-hand son of Slew o’ Gold was extremely pigeon-toed and crooked-legged, and could easily have been overlooked as a top racehorse prospect.

“Mr. Mabee sent him to me, and said, ‘Now I don’t want an argument, you run him for a tag,’” Hofmans recalled. “I told him I’d give him $50,000 for the horse before he’d even started. Mr. Mabee thought about it for a minute, then said, ‘Well, if you like him for fifty, maybe I’ll just keep him.’

“Dramatic Gold made over $3 million in his career, and personality-wise was the coolest horse I ever trained. Wherever he would go everyone fell in love with him. One of the times Mr. Mabee fired me, he gave him to another trainer, and that trainer called me just to tell me how much he liked the horse.”

Hofmans’ most recent Grade 1 winner was Melatonin, who took the Santa Anita Handicap and the Gold Cup at Santa Anita in 2016. 

Hofmans celebrates Melatonin’s Santa Anita Handicap victory with jockey Joe Talamo
©Benoit Photo

“That was a gratifying career he had for me,” the trainer said. “When he won the 1 1/16-mile race at Del Mar in 41 and something, and did it so easily, I went down there and Joe Talamo was on him talking to my assistant. They both looked at me and said, ‘We want to run in the Santa Anita Handicap!’

“I may have thought they were crazy, but I have a pic of Talamo in the Big ‘Cap turning into the stretch on Melatonin 3-4 lengths in front. He had just looked back and had a big smile on his face because he hadn’t let the horse run yet.”

Hofmans was nominated for the Hall of Fame in 2006, and while his list of accomplishments is long and distinguished, the trainer isn’t ready to retire anytime soon. He has 17 horses in the barn these days, and he’s still having too much fun to walk away.

“I love training horses, the getting out here early in the morning and interacting with the other horsemen, but mostly the horses,” Hofmans said. “Today’s 70 is yesterday’s 50, especially when you get a good one in the barn!” 

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Veteran Hofmans Still Fishing For His Next Big One appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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