07/02/2003 11:00PM

Oaks has a tale of Hofmann

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The American Oaks wasn't invented for the pleasure of a guy like Klaus Hofmann. It only looks that way.

Hofmann is a retired computer company turnaround whiz from Wiesbaden, Germany, who has parlayed a small portion of his fortune into a Thoroughbred racing enterprise that has grown to 28 horses over a period of three years.

The star of his stable is Meridiana, a chestnut filly with the build of a ballerina, who gave Hofmann the biggest win of his brief racing life by winning the Italian Oaks at San Siro on May 18 and beating the hot Godolphin favorite, Lady Catherine, in the process.

Now Hofmann and Meridiana are at Hollywood Park - dealing with warm weather, jet lag, and red tape - in order to be a part of the second running of the $750,000 American Oaks on Saturday. If the Swiss can bag the America's Cup, why shouldn't the Germans go for the Oaks?

The Oaks itself is a heavily promoted, micromanaged attempt to position Hollywood Park on the international summer racing calendar, and they should be applauded for taking a shot. Management is gambling that a fat purse dangled in the wake of the European filly classics will attract fields that will eventually feed into other mainstream American races.

They are also praying for a Grade 1 ranking when the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association committee gets around to it, and recruiting a filly like Meridiana is part of that strategy. It is just the kind of dice-rolling risk that appeals to Hofmann, whose knack for buying companies for a bargain and selling them for whopping profits has allowed him to live as he likes at the age of 46.

"My horses and my golf," Hofmann replied, when asked what occupies most of his time. "Yes, I brought my clubs. I hope to play this afternoon."

First things first, however. Hofmann spent Thursday morning at Hollywood Park, waiting for a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to give Meridiana the green light to exit her quarantine stable and stretch her graceful legs. Together with his trainer, Hans Blume, Hofmann circled the Oaks some time ago, once it was clear that Meridiana preferred a grass course with bounce. But on this particular morning she was content to gallop comfortably around the main track under her exercise rider, Michelle Mayer.

"She trains on both the grass and the sand back home," said Alida Blume, the trainer's daughter and assistant. "Home" is the Blume training ground in Cologne, Germany.

"See how she is so agile," Hofmann noted as Meridiana coasted past his vantage point on the porch of the backstretch. In the Oaks, the rider was on her for the first time and she did whatever he wanted."

So far, Meridiana has done very little wrong. She has won 4 of 6, at distances from seven to 11 furlongs, while giving Hofmann a hint of what a truly good horse can mean to the business side of the game.

"The computer business is very straightforward, very clear," Hofmann said. "But racing is crazy, really crazy. You can only trust one or two people at a time - all the others are looking for your money. And finding those people who you can trust is very difficult, because you can ask and ask and ask, and no one will give you an answer.

"So you end up making many mistakes," Hofmann went on. "I made many mistakes myself. There have been many good business managers go into racing, but they do not have the time to watch what happens. That happened to me, when I had a couple of horses before I sold my last company. Now I have the time, and I am able to make the decisions."

Hofmann has entered the game at a time when German horses are beginning to make more and more of an impact on the international scene. Lando won the 1995 Japan Cup. The filly Borgia finished second in the 1997 Breeders' Cup Turf at Hollywood Park. Tiger Hill threw a scare into the 1998 Arc de Triomphe by finishing third, while Caitano had a long, globe-trotting career. In 2001, Silvano invaded Chicago to win the Arlington Million by three lengths. Like Silvano, Meridiana is by Lomitas.

"I don't like a business where I lose money day after day," Hofmann said. "I don't mind if I take a risk, but I like to have a chance."

Hofmann and his business partners made their score thanks to the failure of Memorex. They were able to buy viable remnants of the bankrupt company, reorganize and retool them, and take them public. Then along came a larger corporation to make them an offer they could not, in good conscience, refuse.

Thoroughbred investment, Hofmann is learning, can have a similar trajectory. He bought Meridiana for $100,000 and was offered what he believed was a solid $400,000 before the Italian Oaks. He declined, and now her value has floated to the seven-figure level.

"If she can be third, or even second in this race, I will be very happy," Hofmann said. "But with 14 horses, on a very different course than Italy or Germany, you don't really know what will happen. I would love to see her win, but I have learned that is something you cannot expect."