07/18/2001 11:00PM

Hofmans: Starrer-eyed over Oaks

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ELMONT, N.Y. - He reaches for the stars . . . successfully.

Cigar, though aging, was still the odds-on favorite for the Breeders' Cup Classic of 1996 when trainer David Hofmans beat him with Alphabet Soup. And it was Hofmans who, in 1997, turned aside the Triple Crown bid of the favored Silver Charm by winning the Belmont Stakes with Touch Gold.

Hofmans is on hand once again from his West Coast headquarters, this time for Saturday's $350,000 Coaching Club American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies. Starrer, whom he trains for George Krikorian, is expected to be one of the favorites, though the Oaks is a 1 1/2-mile race this season and Starrer, by Dynaformer, has never been farther than 1 1/16 miles. In that sense he is still reaching for the stars but the past performances suggest the filly has a reasonable chance.

This is a fascinating story. Starrer came out of the sales for a modest $35,000. She failed to win her maiden last season in three starts, though she finished well to be third in the Landaluce Stakes at Hollywood before an injury ended her campaign. She won her maiden this spring in a minor sprint stakes, was a closing second in another feature at seven furlongs, and last month ran the race of her brief career to win the 1 1/16-mile Princess Stakes, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 105.

"She's a big, strong, long-striding filly with a good mind," Hofmans noted. "She laid back off the leaders in the Princess and then came and got them. I have no concern about distance with her, and that's why we're here. The CCA Oaks is a Grade 1 stakes with considerable prestige. She worked good at Belmont earlier this week and appears to like the track. And we've got Chris to ride her."

Chris McCarron rode Alphabet Soup to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and was on Touch Gold the day he won the Belmont. He is a superior rider going a distance, and his presence is another reason Starrer seems headed for stardom.

Owner Krikorian, who has a chain of movie theatres throughout southern California, learned to love horses from his father, who trained a stable for many years at such New England tracks as Rockingham Park and Narragansett.

Krikorian, who began assembling a stable five years ago, now has some 20 in training, most with Hofmans, who is not afraid to take a chance when the facts support it.

While the CCA Oaks has attracted a competitive field, a number of the division leaders - including the Acorn winner, Forest Secrets, and the Mother Goose winner, Fleet Renee - are conspicuous by their absence, as are Flute, the Kentucky Oaks winner, and others. In most cases - not all - the principal reason is the distance.

Many horsemen don't care to prepare their horses to stay 1 1/2 miles, claiming there are too few opportunities to justify the effort.

The CCA Oaks was run at 1 1/2 miles from 1971 to 1989. It was cut back to 1 1/4 miles in 1990 and run at that distance until 1998, when it was lengthened again to 1 1/2 miles.

"Our thinking in going back to 1 1/2 miles with the Oaks was our appreciation of tradition," said Mike Lakow, Belmont's racing secretary. "We've had some good races at that distance, including last year's running, won by Jostle.

"While we regret that some divisional leaders are not running this year, it is far too early to judge the fillies that are running. Some of them may go on to become important horses this fall."

The future distance of the Oaks?

"It will be discussed," Lakow said. "It is a question for which there is no easy answer. We're trying to do the right thing. The important thing now is to give these fillies a chance to prove themselves and not rush to judgment."