10/17/2012 5:09PM

Hovdey: Gonzalez profile may be low, but he’s still in the game

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Rumors, being mostly false yet highly entertaining, have a tendency to linger like mold. Paco Gonzalez, according to such rumors, has been on his way out as a trainer, having seen his stable shrink to a handful of horses over the past several years, a dizzying descent from the heights he enjoyed handling the likes of Free House, Came Home, and Bien Bien.

The names ring golden bells. A list of major stakes won by those three alone – among them a Hopeful, the Santa Anita Handicap, the San Juan, the San Luis Rey, two Santa Anita Derbies, and a pair of Pacific Classics – is longer than the average arm. Stir in a supporting cast that included stakes winners Del Mar Dennis, Pacific Squall, Elaborate, A.P. Assay, Bosque Redondo, Kumari Continent, and Bien Bien’s son Bienamado, and the Gonzalez portfolio withstands scrutiny from all angles.

In fact, it can be argued that no trainer has done more with less, at least in modern California history. And by less we’re talking quantity, not quality. As private trainer for the stable of Canadian oil and minerals entrepreneur John Toffan and his partner, the late Trudy McCaffery, Gonzalez averaged just over a hundred starters a year between 1991 – when he took the honest colt Mane Minister east to finish third in all three legs of the Triple Crown – and 2002, when Came Home became only the third 3-year-old to win the Pacific Classic. The average yearly stable total through those dozen grand years was $1.7 million.

There is a temptation to extrapolate the Gonzalez numbers and wonder what might have been. Last year, for instance, the runners of national leader Todd Pletcher won purses at the Gonzalez rate ($17.1 million from 1,061 starters), but for Paco that’s never been the point. His mandate has been to make the most of what he was provided by a patron he can trust, and he takes pride in doing just that.

“They’ve been writing articles about Paco not doing so well, at one time he was doing this or that,” Toffan said. “But it’s not his fault. I just haven’t given him the horses. I mean, look at Baffert and some of these other guys. They’ve got 10, 20 rich owners. Paco’s got me, and if I don’t provide it there ain’t a hell of a lot he can do. And he’s done an amazing job with what he’s gotten.”

Still, when a guy comes off a year like 2011 with just four wins from 29 starters, when his trademark yellow stable colors are being seen on fewer and fewer horses, and then comes a major fall meet at Santa Anita and he is nowhere to be found after more than 20 years as a reassuring presence – well, rumors have been fueled on a whole lot less. It was time to find out if Paco was still a player, or if he had indeed closed up shop and headed for the hills.

Two rings and Gonzalez answered his phone, chipper and full of energy.

“I am in the hills!” Gonzalez said with a laugh. “But I’m not retired. John only has two horses at the track right now, so we gave them to another trainer to take care of while I went to Mexico to visit my sister. Right now I’m in Kentucky visiting my brother, then I come back home and see what happens.”

Is this a tough game or what? A guy can’t take a few weeks off to spend time with family without sparking rumors he’s reached the end of the road. In fairness, though, Paco Gonzalez taking a holiday of any length is a headline right up there with “Man Bites Dog.” His obsession with both the detail of the job and an almost debilitating reluctance to turn his back on his horses for any amount of time has become legendary.

“He needed some time off,” said John Toffan, who now races in partnership with his wife, Cheryl. “And we’ve been scaling back for years. After my heart attacks I can’t handle as much as I used to. I can’t be as hands-on, so it just isn’t that much fun. And I understand how Paco might feel. It’s just so hard to keep at it day after day when you’ve got nothing to work with.”

The Gonzalez reputation is lofty, no doubt, and universally respected by those who witnessed his development of Came Home, who won major races from six to 10 furlongs, or of the turf demon Bien Bien, whose battles with 1993 Horse of the Year Kotashaan were epic, or of Free House, a loose cannon of high velocity who was one of only two foals of the 35,341 born in North America in 1994 to win Grade 1 races at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5. The other one was Silver Charm.

Gonzalez has spent much of the last decade as world-class talent with no steady outlet for his craft. But nothing, other than his own reticence, has kept him from branching out.

“I’ve been trying to get him to do that, and offered to help him get new owners,” Toffan said. “But he didn’t want to.”

Things change.

“I feel very good, very healthy,” Gonzalez said. “I’m 67 and I feel like 60. But to find somebody else like John is not easy, because he understands when horses have problems. And he knows I’m there all the time, so what I tell him he knows that’s the way it is.

“The business is not like it was 10 years ago,” Gonzalez added. “But I would enjoy a stable of 15 or 20, and I got some people offering me horses, so we’ll see.”

This is music to Toffan’s ears.

“I’m glad he’s changed his mind,” Toffan said. “If he wants to train a decent stable of horses again, and people find out he does, he’d get all the owners in the world, that guy. He’s one of the best.”