03/15/2002 1:00AM

Hofmans, Siphonic push to Derby


ARCADIA, Calif. - David Hofmans, an otherwise rational individual, will embark on Sunday along a road destined to bring him nothing but grief, stress and sleepless nights. He knows all this, because he has traveled this way before, and yet he goes willingly, secure in the knowledge that the ultimate rewards tower over such petty inconveniences as grief, stress, and sleepless nights.

At least, that's what he's been told.

As the trainer of Siphonic, a Triple Crown candidate of proven ability, Hofmans is using the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita to begin the final push to the Kentucky Derby and beyond. Hofmans was on the same hunt last year with Millennium Wind, but it didn't pan out. After winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Millennium Wind's feet failed him in Louisville, and he was never the same horse after that.

Hofmans already has satisfied himself that Siphonic has the right stuff to stand the gaff, with only the mystery of the Derby distance yet to resolve. Siphonic is a tough nut of a colt, milled to precise dimensions, with a whispering stride and a maturity far beyond his tender years. Any doubts that Hofmans may harbor in his busy mind on the drive to the track each day tend to evaporate whenever Siphonic glides into motion.

"With this horse," Hofmans said, "I'm not worried about running against anybody."

As a result, the trainer can allow himself the occasional luxury to look past the San Felipe and plan for the day that Siphonic arrives in Kentucky and the real challenge begins.

The 2001 Derby was his first, and for Hofmans it was the rough equivalent of a tax audit, or a root canal. Nothing went right with Millennium Wind, even though, in terms of mechanics and fitness, there was nothing amiss with the colt. It was a hoof fungus, cracked heels, and a skin rash that took a daily toll, and Hofmans was absolutely up front about his colt's condition every step of the way, giving repeated interviews, searching in vain for a positive spin.

"I think I was probably trying to convince myself Millennium Wind was okay," Hofmans said. "Beware the trainer who talks too much. Deep down he's either hiding something or kidding himself. You try to look on the rosy side, and hope things will happen like you want. But sometimes that interferes with your judgment. I think we've seen that with a lot of trainers."

At the age of 59, Hofmans has had a career that looks good from almost every side. And yet, his name is a long way from being a household word, in spite of the fact that he has a Breeders' Cup Classic, a Belmont Stakes, and a Queen's Plate among his many trophies.

Viewed from another angle, Hofmans has been the outsider, the guy who was never quite the hero. A quarter century ago, Seattle Slew could have easily landed in his barn, but he needed another month or so on the farm, then went East instead of West. When Hofmans won the 1997 Belmont with Touch Gold, he was spoiling Silver Charm's Triple Crown. And how dare he ruin Cigar's last race by winning the 1996 Classic with Alphabet Soup?

Hofmans is used to it by now. The job is tough enough without spending valuable time in the past.

"Being a public horse trainer, you've got no security at all," Hofmans noted. "You're only as good as your performance, and sometimes even that isn't good enough."

Hofmans paused. He was sitting behind a desk in the office of his son and assistant, Grant Hofmans, at their Santa Anita stable, surrounded by the contradictory equipment of his profession. A laptop, liniment, a fax-copier, hanging tack. The job, he said in obvious understatement, is unique.

"It's not like someplace where you can stop an assembly line, back it up and start over again," Hofmans began. "Everybody has to do everything right all the time, because we are dealing with living creatures that change all the time. You know the cliche, you're only as good as your weakest link? It's magnified in this business.

"So much of your time is spent managing people," he went on. "In my barn, I'm very top-heavy with 'executive' help - assistant trainers, people on that level - because the smallest detail can cause you the biggest grief. The smallest nail in the wrong place. A bandage on too tight. Boom, it's over.

"As a result, you must almost treat the lowest rung of your help the same way you treat your owners. You have to watch out for egos. You can't make them angry. You're constantly dealing with personalities in a way other businesses would not. It's not like giving a bunch of salesmen a pep talk and then sending them out in the field."

Hofmans was two words into his next observation when he spotted Siphonic being led into the shedrow after cooling out from a half-mile breeze. The trainer jumped up and moved quickly to Siphonic's stall, mixing Spanish and English, attending to small details.

"The Derby is so overwhelming," Hofmans said after Siphonic was secure. "This year we'll do a few things different. Maybe have a little more barn control, with reporters and visitors, keep the attention down a little bit. I'm not sure, but it might have a detrimental effect on the horse in the long run.

"Still, it was fun," he insisted. "I'm ready to do it again."