10/31/2016 10:46AM

Hofmans has Melatonin rested and ready for Breeders' Cup Classic

Barbara D. Livingston
Melatonin and trainer David Hofmans, who has won Breeders' Cup races at odds of 40-1, 36-1, and 19-1.

ARCADIA, Calif. – David Hofmans hiked into the box seats at Santa Anita the other morning to watch Melatonin work, reached into his pocket, and realized he’d left his stopwatch in the tack room back at his barn.

A bystander had an extra one that Hofmans borrowed, but that might be the only help Hofmans needs to get Melatonin ready for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday. Hofmans is boldly going where no trainer has gone before, attempting to win the Classic off the longest layoff in the race’s history. Yet Hofmans, 73, has proven time and again in his brilliant, underappreciated career that he often does his best work when the odds are longest.

Hofmans has sent out just 16 Breeders’ Cup starters, and three of them have won, at odds of 19-1, 40-1, and 36-1. A $2 bet on all of Hofmans’s runners, totaling $32, would have returned $200.10.

The 19-1 upset, Hofmans’s first win in a Breeders’ Cup race, came with Alphabet Soup when he beat the mighty Cigar in Cigar’s final start to win the Classic at Woodbine 20 years ago.

“Alphabet Soup would try so hard,” Hofmans recalled. “He’d lay his body down.”

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Adoration was the longest shot in the 2003 Distaff at Santa Anita when she won at 40-1, and Desert Code was the longest shot in the 2008 Turf Sprint at Santa Anita when he sprung a 36-1 upset. Hofmans also trained Touch Gold to a victory in the 1997 Belmont Stakes, stopping Silver Charm’s bid for the Triple Crown.

This David knows how to slay the Goliaths.

And now Hofmans will take on such highly regarded runners as California Chrome and Arrogate with a horse who hasn’t raced since June 25. If Melatonin pulls off the upset in the Classic, he will set a record for the longest layoff preceding a Breeders’ Cup victory, 133 days, breaking by one day the record set by Precisionist in the Sprint at Aqueduct in 1985. The longest layoff when winning the Classic is 91 days, by Invasor in 2006.

Melatonin, owned by Susan Osborne’s Tarabilla Farms, earned a berth in the Classic by winning the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, which is part of the Win and You’re In program. That, though, turned out to be his last race. There was a possibility he would run at Del Mar in the Pacific Classic, but he got sick, and “it set him back enough that he missed the Awesome Again,” Hofmans said, referring to Melatonin’s scheduled prep on Oct. 1.

As a result, Hofmans has had to give Melatonin a demanding workout schedule. From Sept. 26 through Oct. 27, he worked six times – twice at six furlongs, twice at seven furlongs, once at a mile, and then five days later at five furlongs. Hofmans had one more work scheduled for this week.

“I’m very happy,” Hofmans said. “He’s good right now. He’s right on his game. He’s fresh and happy, acting like he was before the Santa Anita Handicap.”

Melatonin won the Santa Anita Handicap in March, beating Effinex, then was second to Effinex in the Oaklawn Handicap before winning the Gold Cup. He is 4 for 4 at Santa Anita, with two of those wins coming at 1 1/4 miles, the distance of the Classic.

“I think he’ll run well,” Hofmans said. “He likes the track, and he runs well fresh.”

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Hofmans realizes this is a difficult challenge, not only because of the layoff but the competition. But with a free roll, why not?

“What are you going to do, duck a $6 million race?” Hofmans said. “He’s got a shot to hit the board.”

At a recent dinner with Art Sherman, the trainer of California Chrome, Hofmans joked that he thought California Chrome needed a rest.

“When we beat Cigar, he had started to tail off,” Hofmans said. “It’s not like Chrome.”

Hofmans’s three Breeders’ Cup wins equal the number earned by Graham Motion, Dale Romans, and the late Francois Boutin and are one more than Mark Casse, Kiaran McLaughlin, Carl Nafzger, Charlie Whittingham, and Nick Zito. He is seeking to become only the fifth trainer to win the Classic more than once, joining Whittingham, Bob Baffert, Bill Mott, and Jay Robbins.

The Classic win with Alphabet Soup was gratifying for Hofmans on several levels. It was his first Breeders’ Cup victory, and Alphabet Soup had been disqualified from victory in the Goodwood – the forerunner to the Awesome Again – three weeks earlier.

“That pissed me off,” Hofmans said of the DQ.

In that Classic at Woodbine, Hofmans said he was so focused on Cigar, who was outside Alphabet Soup in the run to the wire, that he never realized Louis Quatorze was right there on the inside.

“I thought we had won by a long neck instead of a short nose,” Hofmans said.

“Mrs. Ridder,” he said, referring to owner Georgia Ridder, “thought we got beat.”

That Classic, which had a purse of $4 million, remains the richest race Hofmans has won, but he said Adoration provided him with his most satisfying win. But not in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, where she went wire-to-wire under Patrick Valenzuela.

“When she won the Breeders’ Cup, she didn’t get the proper credit – the other horses didn’t fire, P. Val stole the race,” Hofmans said of the excuses he heard. “So, when she won the Santa Margarita the next March, that was really gratifying.”

Melatonin, a 5-year-old gelding by Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Kodiak Kowboy, has benefited from another master class in training by Hofmans. Hofmans took over as Melatonin’s trainer and nursed him through a bout with equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, a disease that affects the muscles and leaves horses weakened. Once Melatonin recovered and returned in August 2015 from an 18-month absence, Hofmans sprinted him four times – mirroring his campaign with his first trainer, Jeff Bonde – owing to Melatonin’s sprint-oriented pedigree.

But since stretching out around two turns, Melatonin has won three times in four starts.

“I don’t know why he gets a mile and a quarter,” Hofmans said.

Perhaps it’s the trainer.