04/26/2005 11:00PM

Californians keep the faith

Benoit & Associates
Barbara Walter congratulates Jose Valdivia Jr. after Robador's victory.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was reasonable to expect the grandstand to be draped in black crepe, unused windows boarded up, and a band on the foredeck playing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the racetrack formerly known as Hollywood Park began slipping out of sight.

Instead, last weekend's opening programs of the 2005 Hollywood season were flagrantly festive in the face of persistent indications that the place soon will be sold and plowed under.

More than 20,000 came out on Friday night to devour dollar hot dogs and wash them down with dollar beers. Another 13,000 or so turned out on Sunday for the Gold Rush card featuring top California-breds. Whistling past the graveyard? Perhaps, but 13,000 on any given Sunday sounds a lot better than the 4,000 who showed up the same day at Aqueduct to watch the best New York-breds compete in a brace of rich stakes.

Bicoastal comparisons are unfair, of course, especially since everything happens three hours earlier in the East. The trick, these days, is for racetrack operators to stay focused on the market at hand and get the most out of a dying breed - the daily patron - while making special those afternoons designated for extra attention. To that end, the Gold Rush program provided at least two memorable contests and generated in-house handle of $2.8 million and a total of $11.5 million nationwide.

Alphabet Kisses, very lean and dapple gray, ran away from Dream of Summer in the seven-furlong B. Thoughtful Stakes as if she could do it again in the prestigious A Gleam Handicap against all comers later in the meet. Shortly after the race, Dave Hofmans was congratulated for his work with the daughter of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup.

"Thanks," he replied, "but I don't train her, I trained her sire. And I did give him a lot of kisses."

Honors, in fact, go to Marty Jones, who spends most of his time with Alphabet Kisses watching her weight.

"She's a nervous filly in her stall," Jones said as he watched her circle the paddock before the B. Thoughtful. "That's why she loves Del Mar, where she can be in a pen outside. We can't do that here - something to do with the waste disposal - so I got her a goat. That seems to be calming her down."

It is always good to hear that the old-school solutions still work. In that vein, Eoin Harty has employed classic management techniques with 3-year-old Robador and was rewarded on Sunday with victory in the featured event, the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes at 1 1/8 miles.

Robador already had run six times at shorter distances without winning for his owner, Barbara Walter, who bred him with her late husband, Robert. In some circles, this would be cause for alarm. But through the years, most of the best Walter horses - Cavonnier, Tout Charmant, Charmonnier - have displayed their best abilities over the long haul.

"Two turns and the further the better seems to be his game," Harty said after Robador sprung a 23-1 surprise on a field that included WinStar Derby winner Thor's Echo. "He's typical of a horse who wasn't going to do it until he was ready to do it. You can't force them."

What? Of course you can. Happens all the time.

"Not too successfully," Harty replied. "I imagine there are people who would sprint a horse like this twice, then drop him for $50,000, going short. Why give up so soon? This horse was big and backward, but he had enough natural talent to run competitively as a 2-year-old going short. It was just a matter of waiting for him to come around."

Now that he has, Harty was mildly surprised there has been no 11th-hour offer for the colt from someone desperate to run something in the Kentucky Derby. Beyond his reasonable clocking of 1:49 and change for the Snow Chief, Robador would seem to have all the other qualities some people require for 2005 Derby participation, which is essentially a foal date in 2002, four legs, and a pulse.

Instead, Robador may have positioned himself to reap the bounty opportunities lying just beneath the layer of the Triple Crown in such events as the $300,000 Lone Star Derby, the $250,000 Iowa Derby, and the $350,000 Ohio Derby. Even then, there are no free passes.

"The last time I took a horse to Prairie Meadows for the Iowa Derby, he finished third," Harty recalled. "The horse who ran second was named Saint Liam."

For now, Harty prefers to enjoy the glow of the Snow Chief, and savor the added bonus that it happened for a patron dear to his own personal history. Harty was Bob Baffert's assistant when Cavonnier - a gelding bred and raised in the wine country of northern California - came within a nose of winning the 1996 Kentucky Derby for Bob and Barbara Walter.

"That horse, and the experience he gave me, meant a great deal," Harty said. "Later on, when I actually went out on my own, Mrs. Walter was the very first person to call me and tell me she would send me some horses. Which she duly did."