07/16/2010 1:45PM

Don't count Hofmans out in Sunset


Now that David Hofmans has proved he can win Breeders’ Cup races of all shapes and sizes with horses such as Alphabet Soup, Adoration, and Desert Code, dash the Triple Crown hopes of a hungry nation in the Belmont Stakes with Touch Gold, and develop any number of fast young fillies and colts into major stakes winners, let’s see if he can finally plug a hole in his r é sum é and win a decent race on the grass with an older horse over a distance of ground.

Oh, look, there’s one, entered by Hofmans and owner John Amerman on Sunday in the closing day Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park. His name is Great Siege. He’s a 5-year-old son of Rock of Gibraltar, and in a 12-furlong race that’s anybody’s to win, he figures to have just as good a chance as Oil Man, Marlang, Dynamic Range, Buenos Dias, Champ Pegasus, or Unusual Suspect.

The reader is forgiven if none of those names rings a particularly resounding bell. Among them, only Oil Man, from the John Sadler barn, has won a stakes race at any time in the last 12 months. Yes, it has come to this, extolling the virtues of honest allowance horses and wannabes as they attempt to take their place in Hollywood Park history alongside Fort Marcy, Cougar II, Exceller, John Henry, and Sandpit.

To be fair, the Sunset runners don’t know they don’t belong in the same sentence as Fort Marcy, John Henry, and the others. And with Hollywood Park still marching slowly toward a seemingly inevitable death by development, each of these last additions to the rolls of the track’s most tradition-rich races is laced with a certain poignancy. One of these days, a winner of the Sunset will be asked to turn out the lights.

When all the fees are tallied, the gross purse for the 2010 Sunset will top out at around $111,000. It’s been more than 40 years since the prize money was that low for a race won 13 times by Bill Shoemaker, 11 times by Charlie Whittingham, and five times by a latter-day star such as Alex Solis. Richard Mandella gets the good-timing award, taking the two richest runnings of the Sunset in 1995 and ’96 when a sponsorship connection to Caesars Palace meant more than $400,000 to the winners. So much for ancient history.

Hofmans isn’t kidding himself, though. These are the times in which horsemen live, and he will gladly settle for the best part of the hundred grand, considering that Great Siege has earnings of about $150,000, which is half what he cost as a yearling. He hasn’t exactly been a huge disappointment to his people, or an embarrassment to his family. But after 17 starts, three wins, and more than a few close defeats, it may be time for the Irish-bred gelding to step up with a race to remember. He’s got nothing, as it were, to lose.

“He’s sort of a one-paced horse, and we’re hoping he can lay close and maybe have a little punch towards the end,” Hofmans said this week as he prepared his stable for the move to Del Mar. “He’s been there or just about there all the time against what I thought were some better horses. So we’re hoping the added distance helps him kind of get over the hump.”

Hofmans has enough history to know that a Sunset field could be counted on to be stocked with major stakes winners, and that a horse like Great Siege would be relegated to the 50-1 bunch. In the current context, though, Great Siege figures off races such as the San Gabriel Handicap in late December, when he was beaten 1 1/2 lengths by Proudinsky, or the allowance race at Del Mar last summer, in which he missed by a neck to Victor’s Cry, winner of the 2010 Shoemaker Mile.

“Rock of Gibraltars really don’t want to go this far,” Hofmans said, “but his bottom side can give him the mile and a half.”

If Hofmans can somehow snag the 12-furlong Sunset, he will take a rare place among horsemen to pull off the yin-yang double of the Hollywood summer meet. On July 5, Hofmans took the six-furlong Hollywood Juvenile Championship with J P’s Gusto, a son of Successful Appeal. Both races have been run since 1938, and so far the only trainer to cover both bases in a meet was Wayne Lukas, who in 1997 took the Sunset with Marlin and the Juvenile with K.O. Punch.

“He came out of his race great,” Hofmans said of J P’s Gusto. “He’s really maturing. At this point I couldn’t be happier with him.”

J P’s Gusto came out on top of a dogfight with runner-up Western Mood in the Juvenile Championship, winning by a neck.

“He’s a very precocious colt who’s just coming around, and learning what it’s all about,” Hofmans said. “In his race the other day, he kind of waited on that other horse. The other horse got a neck on him, and he came back on.”

A number of observers gave higher marks to Western Mood, who had the slightly wider trip. Hofmans − whose Breeders’ Cup winners were 40-1, 36-1, and 19-1 − can deal with a horse being scoffed. He was asked about the possibility that the effort of J P’s Gusto was being undervalued, especially since the 1-2 Juvenile Championship finishers are coming back at Del Mar in the longer Best Pal Stakes.

“That’s fine with me,” Hofmans said wih a smile. “I hope they do.”