10/10/2002 12:00AM

His cloud will soon roll by


ARCADIA, Calif. - Adoration could win Saturday's Ken Maddy Handicap, no doubt. She ran well down Santa Anita's hill last spring, won the Senorita Stakes on the grass, and then won the Hollywood Oaks on the main track to emphasize both her versatility and her class.

And yet, at least as far as David Hofmans is concerned, if Adoration merely comes back breathing, with a strong heartbeat and a healthy appetite, the trainer will be relieved. In light of recent events, winning the race is almost too much to expect.

Black clouds hover, then sometimes they land and stick around. Last week, the Hofmans family found themselves in an unrelenting spiral of sadness.

As the wife of top Midwestern trainer Richard Hazelton, a seven-time champion at Arlington Park, Nancy Hazelton was deeply involved in her husband's business. Her death on Sept. 30, after a lengthy illness, was felt all the way to California, where her daughter, Christine, is married to Grant Hofmans, David's son and assistant trainer.

Two days later, on the opening program of the Oak Tree meet, the 3-year-old colt Siphonic collapsed and died in the Santa Anita test barn not long after finishing second in a six-furlong race. One year ago, the colt was a vibrant member of his division, fresh from victory in the Breeders' Futurity and on his way to the Breeders' Cup for Hofmans. The sprint was Siphonic's comeback race from a minor injury last spring, designed to put him on track for his 4-year-old campaign.

Then on Friday, Oct. 4, the clan lost their patriarch, Eugene "Butch" Hofmans, a retired liquor distributor, former horse owner, and dedicated racing fan. Hofmans died at the age of 92 after complications from an infected cut sustained in a gardening accident.

"We always said that old fig tree would kill dad, and it finally did," Hofmans said. "He lived 92 years, and he was sick just one week in his life. The last one."

That's not exactly true. More than three years ago, when his father was found to have heart disease, Dave Hofmans was told to prepare for the worst, that Butch might not last much longer. He fooled 'em.

"This time, when dad slipped into a coma, that same doctor told us that he could go at any moment," Hofmans said. "Then he corrected himself, knowing dad. When they took him off life support - according to dad's wishes - he lasted a week on his own."

As a child, Butch Hofmans fled Belgium with his parents to escape the ravages of World War I. When he returned as a young man, some 20 years later, the German Army had butchered his family and friends.

"Because of the things he experienced, he was from a generation that kind of kept their feelings private," Dave Hofmans said. "I knew he was proud of me, and what I've been able to accomplish. But I didn't hear it from him. He'd tell everybody else, then they'd tell me. And that was okay."

After a long life well lived, Butch Hofmans left behind a family far from cheated. Even his great-grandchildren got to know him.

Siphonic, on the other hand, was brimming with unfulfilled promise. Days after the colt's heart stopped, Dave Hofmans was still wracked with disbelief.

"My first reaction when I saw him lying there was to shake him a little and tell him to get up," the trainer said.

Out of respect for Siphonic, as well as a sensitivity to his stable crew, Hofmans withdrew Adoration from her intended start in the Lady's Secret Handicap later the same day. John Amerman and his wife, Jerry, own both horses, but they were out of town.

"What a tough game this is," John Amerman said upon their return. "Siphonic meant so much to us, it's hard to believe he could go like that."

The Amermans have commissioned Richard Stone Reeves to paint a portrait of Siphonic. It will depict the colt, under Chris McCarron, as they strolled beneath the trees of the Keeneland walking ring just before their victory in the Breeders' Futurity.

"They say bad things come in threes," Hofmans said. "I sure hope that's true."

It's a jockey, it's a super hero, it's . . .

Can't fool us movie fans. He might have been dressed down in a T-shirt and jeans, but that was Tobey McGuire at Santa Anita last weekend, hanging with Chris McCarron, checking out the jockeys' room and even cashing a few tickets as he prepared for his role as Red Pollard in the upcoming feature film of the story of Seabiscuit, based on the best-selling book.

"You're taller than I thought you were," said trainer Carla Gaines when introduced to the actor.

"You think I'm too tall?" the 5-foot-7-inch McGuire wondered.

"No, not at all," assured Gaines. Then, as McGuire headed for the windows, she added aside, "That was Spiderman?"

The Seabiscuit project has racetrackers goofy with anticipation. But first things first. The most important showbiz line of the week was uttered by Carmela Soprano to husband Tony last Sunday night, during a preview for this Sunday's visit with New Jersey's first family.

"You bought a racehorse?!"

Bada-bing . . . and away they go.