09/04/2001 11:00PM

Paco makes it in New York


DEL MAR, Calif. - We've lost him now. Lost him to the glitz, the glamour, the Great White Way. Next thing you know, he'll be calling himself "Francisco" and waxing his moustache. He will drive a Ferrari, shop at Bijan, affect a Castillian accent. He will have "people" who will call your "people" to set up lunch at Elaine's.

Just plain Paco, also known as Mr. Gonzalez, left California last week and returned on top of the world. For 10 long years he had been trying like man possessed to break through with a major win in the East. It had become a point of pride, a mountain that needed climbing.

There were Bien Bien's disasters in the Travers and the Man o' War, Pacific Squall's mud-splattered third in the Alabama, and Odyle's fruitless trip to Toronto. Kumari Continent failed when favored in the Kentucky Oaks. A.P. Assay got nothing but hot and dirty in a Breeders' Cup. Bienamado has been to Chicago twice and come base the worse for wear both times.

Then there was Free House in the Woodward, Free House in the Derby, Free House in the Belmont, and Free House in the Preakness, when his rosy pink nose hit the wire a bare heartbeat after Silver Charm's. That was a pretty tough day in the East.

Making the record all the more frustrating is the fact that the beasts named above accounted for such major California stakes as the Santa Anita Handicap, San Juan Capistrano, Hollywood Turf Cup, Pacific Classic, Santa Anita Derby, Whittingham Memorial, Swaps Stakes, Hollywood Oaks, A Gleam Handicap, and San Felipe Stakes. Such form should translate anywhere.

It finally did, last Sunday at Saratoga, when Came Home brought the Hopeful Stakes to its knees. After all these years, it took less than 82 seconds, and all the frustrations were erased. If ever Gonzalez had a right to cop a New York state of mind, the moment had come.

"I don't think so," said John Toffan, who owns Came Home - and all the rest - in partnership with Trudy McCaffery. "Paco was pretty cool. He was feeling a lot of pressure. But he also had a lot of faith in the horse.

"So we broke the jinx," Toffan noted. "And there's nothing like winning a big one at Saratoga. People back there just seem to know and care more about horses, instead of what the odds are and which ones to use in a trifecta."

Toffan has never been shy about shipping their horses far and wide from their California base. But given the lack of success, why keep trying?

"You can't base a decision like that on what's happened in the past," Toffan said. "And if you keep running, you've got to finally win someday."

Toffan pointed to other practicalities.

"If we stayed home, we would have been running against Officer at Del Mar, and it probably would have been a match race," the owner said, referring to the unbeaten son of Bertrando. "There was no sense in running against him now. Besides, when it comes to potential stallion value, winning the Hopeful has been a lot more meaningful than winning the Del Mar Futurity."

As this was written, Officer had yet to dispense with the Del Mar Futurity, so it was Came Home who struck first, setting the bar high with his stakes record Hopeful.

Came Home's breakthrough for Toffan and company must come with an asterisk. Seems they weren't really New York maidens after all. While they were at Saratoga in 1992 with Bien Bien and Pacific Squall, they did win a minor stakes with Nice Assay, who later became the dam of both A.P. Assay and Came Home.

"He's just like his dam," Toffan said of the Hopeful winner. "What an incredible mind. He acts like he's a 5-year-old. He was so relaxed in the paddock the other day, he was standing on three legs. His mother would do that."

Nine years between the Saratoga victories of mother and son. That's a long time between drinks, even with the intervening California success. Toffan recalls Nice Assay's win as if it were yesterday.

"She set a stakes record in the Honorable Miss that still stands," he said. "And Ray Floyd presented us the trophy." For a couple of golfers, that amounted to a bonus.

In the wake of the Hopeful, played out before the movers and shakers of the game, Toffan was kind enough not to gloat. He had a right. Three times Came Home entered a premium sales ring and three times he went back home to Toffan and McCaffery: first as a weanling on a $700,000 reserve, then as a September yearling on a $400,000 reserve, and finally at Barretts last March as a 2-year-old.

"I have no idea why he didn't sell," Toffan said. "He flipped in the ring the first time. But obviously that didn't hurt him. I once watched an agent stare at him for an hour. They told me they were trying to figure out what was wrong. Go figure."

It's just another mystery of the game . . . just like Toffan, Gonzalez, McCaffery, and all their incredible horses taking this long to grab the brass ring on the road. Go figure.