03/16/2016 2:06PM

Hovdey: Kudos for Davids who slew Goliaths


Gather around, pilgrims, and hear a tale of two Davids – Whiteley and Hofmans – two of the most accomplished trainers the Thoroughbred sport has ever known.

There is more to compare than contrast. They were born just a year apart, Hofmans in 1943 and Whiteley in ’44, and they learned their trade in an atmosphere destined for the Hall of Fame: Whiteley from his father, Frank, and Hofmans from Gary Jones and his father, Farrell.

Their best horses could win anywhere at the highest levels. The New York-based Whiteley won major California stakes with Tiller, Waya, Sarsar, and Okavango. Hofmans left the comfort of his California home to win races like the Acorn, Jim Dandy, Blue Grass, Queen’s Plate, and Haskell Invitational.

Hofmans can lay claim to training for Georgia Ridder, John Amerman, John C. Mabee, Karen and Mickey Taylor, and Frank Stronach, a handsome list of patrons from any angle. But give Whiteley the edge on the breadth and depth of the bloodstock he was able to tap. His owners included William Haggin Perry, Peter Brant, Claiborne Farm, the Bancroft family, and Calumet Farm, a collection that takes up a lot of racing history.

Whiteley trained three champions – Waya, Revidere, and Just a Game. That puts him three up on Hofmans, who has had to be content thrashing odds-on Sightseek with Adoration (40-1) in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, with beating defending champion Cigar in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Alphabet Soup (19-1), and taking the world by surprise with the Desert Code (36-1) in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

Both Davids won a single Triple Crown classic – the Belmont Stakes – and both dashed Triple Crown dreams in the process. In 1979, Whiteley trained Coastal to perfection to defeat Spectacular Bid. In 1997, it was Hofmans who took down Silver Charm with Touch Gold.

More to the point, both Davids made headlines last week. Whiteley, who left the racetrack to help his father in South Carolina in 1995, has made the ballot for induction into the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame for the second straight year. Hofmans, who did not make the ballot, consoled himself by winning the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap with the longshot Melatonin.

“Finally,” Hofmans said in the wake of Melatonin’s victory for the Tarabilla Farms stable of Pasadena’s Susan Osborne. “We beat some nice horses, even though they’re not the best in the country. But then, to watch the replay, I mean, damn, this horse ran even better than I thought.”

It took 20 years, but Hofmans finally balanced the books for the winter of 1996, when he sent Alphabet Soup ripping through the Santa Anita Handicap preliminaries, winning the San Pasqual and San Antonio, only to suffer an injury in the big race that knocked him out until the summer. After he beat Cigar that fall, all was forgiven, but the Handicap was definitely one that got away.

Melatonin entered the Handicap with a wafer-thin résumé compared to Alphabet Soup’s, with precious little stakes experience and only a recent allowance win to tout his circle of supporters. At the age of 5, the son of Kodiak Kowboy seemed destined to be no more than a member of the chorus.

“This does not really change what you think of him,” Hofmans said. “I’ve always thought he could turn out to be a very nice horse. But it does change what you do with him.”

Hofmans knew going in that there were no monsters in the Handicap, he knew Melatonin would benefit from carrying only the 115 pounds made by Joe Talamo, and he anticipated a speed-favoring track that could play into their hands – all factors that will give rise to a skeptical evaluation of Melatonin’s ability to repeat such a dramatic performance.

For his part, Hofmans will believe what he sees.

“I went back to the receiving barn after the race, and Talamo showed up,” the trainer said. “We were both amazed how well he cooled out. Watching it live, you’re so full of emotion you lose perspective. I thought he was a length and a half in front and just cruising along. Now that I’ve watched the replay several times, I appreciate more what he did. He was hooked almost every step of the way by General a Rod, and then he galloped out what looked like 10 lengths in front of the rest.

“So, I think he’s legitimate,” Hofmans said. “He’s matured into a really nice horse. But we’ll see after we start tackling some tougher guys. Before, his races were predicted by the condition book. Now, you’re setting goals like the Breeders’ Cup and work back from there. We really haven’t gotten to that, though. We’re still basking in the sunlight.”

There is no explanation for Whiteley’s absence from the Hall of Fame ballot until 2015. He had been eligible for 20 years. Let’s just say his record aged like fine wine, and the nominating committee (of which this writer is a member) finally opened the bottle. Whiteley is joined on the ballot by Steve Asmussen, Craig Perret, Ramon Dominguez, Garrett Gomez, Victor Espinoza, Kona Gold, English Channel, Rachel Alexandra, and Zenyatta, which means he will have a tough time making the top four inducted. That does not mean he does not belong.

As for Hofmans, his record speaks for itself. Even better, it’s still making noise.