12/31/2004 1:00AM

El Conejo minor skirmish for Dorfman


ARCADIA, Calif. - When last seen in competition, McCann's Mojave was busy chasing a horse named Speightstown around Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day, giving it a good try in the Churchill Downs Handicap but coming away second best.

Later on, the effort of McCann's Mojave took on added luster when Speightstown won the Breeders' Cup Sprint. That was of small consolation to the McCann's Mojave clan, however, since their horse had to miss the second half of the 2004 season. A sore hock was the culprit, and neither trainer Leonard Dorfman nor owners Mike Willman and Alix Hunt were eager to push the issue.

"There was nothing visible, but it was definitely a sprain," Dorfman said. "And I know when you've got something behind that you can't see, it's best not to go on. We gave him a little time and started back in, but it reappeared. So we just turned him out."

The loss of McCann's Mojave ripped a gaping hole in Dorfman's small stable. The colt was at the top of his form, winning the Potrero Grande Handicap at Santa Anita prior to his race against Speights-town, and was well positioned to be a force among West Coast sprinters.

And he could be still. The 82-year-old Dorfman has the 5-year-old McCann's Mojave ready to run once again, and to that end he has been entered in the $100,000 El Conejo Handicap at Santa Anita on Sunday. Bad weather could always change their plans, but the El Conejo comes up as a handy prep for the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint at Santa Anita on Jan. 29. McCann's Mojave, a homebred Californian, figures to be a major player in that event.

"I'm really pleased with the way he's been coming back," said Dorfman, who hasn't missed a work with McCann's Mojave since he returned to training. "My only concern is running him on a sealed racetrack, which is what they do out here when we get a little weather."

A little weather. That's a laugh. The seven inches of rain that has fallen on Santa Anita this week certainly put a damper on festivities. Both horsemen and fans have had to adjust. Still, compared to the winter that Dorfman spent 60 years ago in northern Europe with the Army's 84th Division, a few raindrops from a Pacific storm amounts to nothing more than a refreshing spritz. Here is an excerpt from the 84th's official website, recounting the closing hours of the European campaign:

"[The 84th] was the first unit to smash the northern section of Germany's dreaded Siegfreid Line," the site reads. "When the German Army began its last great counter-offensive, the 84th Division again blocked the path. In freezing cold and snow, General [Gerd] Von Rundstedt threw the German Army at the 84th again and again. But the Division held its ground in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge."

The Battle of the Bulge remains the largest land engagement ever fought by American troops. Leonard Dorfman was right in the middle of it, a 22-year-old gunner manning an 81-mm mortar and wearing the Railsplitter shoulder patch of the 84th.

Barely two years earlier, Dorfman was enjoying life as a groom for the classy Graceton Philpot stable, whose primary patron was movie mogul Louis B. Mayer.

"We had King's Abbey, who chased Alsab and Shut Out," Dorfman recalled. "And I rubbed Jury Box, who Jack Westrope thought was the best 3-year-old in America until he came up with a tendon."

Dorfman entered the Army in late 1942, trained in Texas and Louisiana, then was shipped out to England in the fall of '44. At the time, the Germans were on the ropes. But on Dec. 16, they launched a last-ditch counterattack that created a bulge in the forward American line.

Pockets of resistance remained behind the bulge, and one of them was the town of Marche-en-Famenne. That is where Dorfman spent Christmas week of 1944, in subzero weather, surrounded by the enemy.

"The Belgian people insisted on digging our foxholes," Dorfman said. "We had a perimeter defense around the city, and those people have never forgotten. A friend of mine went back there once and was treated like royalty."

Dorfman figures his unit was within 600 yards of German Panzer tanks.

"They could have come right through us," Dorfman said. "We didn't have enough to stop them. I don't know where we got the ammunition, but we kept those mortar shells dropping and managed to hold on."

On the night of Jan. 1, 1945, British troops were able to enter March-en-Famenne and relieve the 84th. The next day, the Americans headed north to join a counteroffensive of their own, and by the end of January, the Battle of the Bulge was over and the Germans were on the run. Later, when asked to assess the 84th Division, a captured German officer said: "We knew we were facing new troops and expected it to be easy, but these men fight better than any troops I saw in Africa, Russia, and France."

Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. Dorfman was discharged not long afterward.

"I headed back to California because my mother lived in Los Angeles," he said. "And I couldn't get back to the racetrack fast enough."