06/28/2011 1:01PM

Hollywood: Color of Courage possible harbinger of Gonzalez stable revival

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Trainer Paco Gonzalez is not one to dwell on statistics or history. He is more focused on the job in front of him.

What was once a stable of 20-plus horses now has six. What was once a stable that had several graded stakes winners annually from 1991-2002 may be on the verge of its first win at that level in nearly nine years.

This week, Gonzalez’s task is getting Color of Courage ready for Saturday’s $250,000 Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park, a race that may put Gonzalez and owner John Toffan back in racing’s spotlight.

Color of Courage has won his two starts this year, both in allowance races for sprinters at Hollywood Park. If he wins the Grade 1 Triple Bend over seven furlongs, in what would be a minor upset, Color of Courage would give Gonzalez his first Grade 1 win since Came Home in the 2002 Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

“We’ve been ready for a long time,” he said.

Through that period Gonzalez himself has not really changed. The 66-year-old trainer is still one of the first people to arrive at the Santa Anita stables each morning, long before dawn, even though there is much less to do.

Gonzalez trains exclusively for John and Cheryl Toffan, and has trained for Toffan for more than 20 years. The Toffan-Gonzalez team was outstanding in the 1990s and early 2000s, with such major race winners as Free House, who finished in the top three in all three legs of the 1997 Triple Crown and won the 1998 Pacific Classic and the 1999 Santa Anita Handicap.

Over the years, Gonzalez and Toffan have also had the multiple stakes winners Bien Bien, Bienamado, Del Mar Dennis, Mane Minister, Nice Assay, Odyle, Pacific Squall, and Visible Gold.

The structure of the stable has changed in the last decade. Several years ago, Toffan split with his longtime partner Trudy McCaffery, who died in 2007, and now has a much smaller breeding operation, with his wife, Cheryl.

John and Cheryl Toffan bred Color of Courage, who is by Came Home out of Color Magic, a Holy Bull mare. Toffan remembers Color Magic as being “a filly about this tall” holding his hand out about waist high.

Soundness issues kept her from racing, but she has produced five foals who are all multiple winners. Color of Courage is the most successful, with four wins in six starts and earnings of $132,240. He has been emblematic of the stable in recent years, producing wins, though not at the highest level. In 2009, Gonzalez won 15 races from 56 runners. Last year, there were 10 wins from 54 starters.

Color of Courage did not contribute to those 2010 totals. After winning twice and finishing third in the C.B. Afflerbaugh Stakes at Fairplex Park as a 2-year-old in 2009, Color of Courage underwent surgery to have a bone chip removed from a knee.

A gelding, Color of Courage was entered in an allowance race at Hollywood Park last October for a comeback start, but the program was cancelled because of a flash rainstorm on the day of the race. A month later, he was scratched again because of an elevated temperature. “He got real sick,” Gonzalez said. “I sent him to the farm.”

The farm is the Toffans’ home in Bradbury, Calif., near Santa Anita, a familiar spot for Color of Courage. “He’s spent a lot of time up there,” Toffan said.

Color of Courage resumed serious training in early March this year and won his first start of the year in a 25-1 upset in an allowance race over 6 1/2 furlongs on May 15, closing from the back of the field. He did the same in a seven-furlong allowance race on June 10, a Friday night, overcoming a stumble at the start to win by three-quarters of a length with an eye-catching rally.

“I didn’t think he would run that good,” Gonzalez said.

“I was surprised he won the last race,” Toffan said. “He was so far back. I couldn’t see how he would get there.”

The Triple Bend will be a test for Color of Courage. He faces the graded stakes winners Amazombie, Bench Points, Camp Victory, M One Rifle and Smiling Tiger. Toffan is prepared to take a chance.

“It looks like a tough race,” Toffan said. “We want to find out how good he is. So far, it’s worked out all right. It will be fun to see what he can do. Paco will have him ready.”