08/05/2004 12:00AM

When it counts, Hofmans will be there


DEL MAR, Calif. - A good trainer knows when to say "go" and when to say "whoa," which is why David Hofmans will merely be an interested spectator this weekend, when Del Mar offers the Sorrento Stakes for 2-year-old fillies and the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap for slightly older fillies and mares.

On paper, the promising Bella Banissa deserved a shot at likely Sorrento favorites Souvenir Gift and Inspiring in Saturday's running of the 6 1/2-furlong Sorrento. In her only two starts, Bella Banissa finished second in the Nursery Stakes and second in the Landaluce Stakes, both at Hollywood Park. This time around, Hofmans and owner Pete Parrella will settle for a maiden race in the condition book for Sunday.

"She ran two really tough races, both in stakes, and she ran her little butt off both times," Hofmans said. "So it's time to get a nice race into her. I hope it's not too tough on her, and then we can come back in the Debutante."

That would be the Del Mar Debutante, rated Grade 1 and scheduled for Aug. 28. Hofmans won the 2000 running of the Debutante with Cindy's Hero.

Bella Banissa, from the second crop of the accomplished sprinter Good and Tough, was among the 2-year-olds up for auction at the Barretts sale last March in Pomona. Parrella and his Legacy Ranch manager, Sean Hadley, thought enough of Bella Banissa to pay $100,000, considerably more than the $6,000 stud fee charged for access to her sire, who stands in New York.

At a hundred grand, Bella Banissa also cost a bit more than the Hofmans stable star, Adoration, who went for $40,000 as a yearling. Now age 5, Adoration reigns as the winner of the 2003 Breeders' Cup Distaff, a title Hofmans says he hopes to defend Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park.

Under the normal circumstances of the 12-month Thoroughbred calendar, a mare like Adoration would have been found front and center Sunday at Del Mar in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch. In fact, Adoration wasn't even nominated.

Her most recent appearance came June 12 at Churchill Downs, when she handled a sloppy track well enough to win the Fleur de Lis Handicap by just over a length. Before that, Adoration had finished second to Victory Encounter in the Vanity Handicap and won the Santa Margarita.

"After the Fleur de Lis, I kept her at Hollywood Park, just tack-walking her," Hofmans said. "Then I started picking up her training a little while ago, to where she has now worked three-eighths, a half, and now five-eighths on Saturday.

"She gained some weight and got to relax," Hofmans said. "Actually, we were going to give her time off after the Vanity. But she came out of it so good that we thought, 'Let's try one more.' The race in Kentucky came up just right, and that was a terrific day."

At that point, Adoration had been in steady training for nearly a year, dating back to early summer of 2003. And since she was sound, she could have soldiered on, running in races like the Milady Handicap at Hollywood or the Hirsch this weekend, or even heading east for top events in New York. It was Hofmans's recommendation, however, to pull the plug, and owner John Amerman agreed.

"For one thing, these races we've passed were a mile and a sixteenth, and I really don't want to run her at anything less than a mile and one-eighth," Hofmans said. "That's her best distance, where her ability to carry her speed really works to her advantage.

"Still, those races are very tempting, and it's hard to pass them up," Hofmans said. "But you have to. If you want a horse running hard at the end of the year you have to give them time sometime. I wanted her fresh going into the Breeders' Cup, like she was last year."

The result was a wire-to-wire, 4 1/2-length romp under Patrick Valenzuela in the opening race of the 2003 Breeders' Cup program at Santa Anita. Except for those in the Adoration camp - and anyone holding a winning ticket at 40-1 - the race was a definite letdown. Azeri did not run. Neither Sightseek, Got Koko, nor Take Charge Lady fired, and the time was among the slowest in the history of the event.

Once again, though, hopes are high that the Distaff at Lone Star will fulfill its early promise. The rejuvenated Azeri and durable Sightseek lead the division. Adoration, Star Parade, and Victory Encounter each have two major wins this year. And 3-year-old Ashado is poised to jump into the mix.

It is Hofmans's intention to commence Adoration's "second season" in the Matron Handicap at Arlington Park on Sept. 4, followed by the Spinster Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 3. Then, on to Texas.

"She has changed tremendously compared to this time last year," Hofmans said. "She's carrying a lot more flesh, she's much more mature and much more settled. So who knows? If Adoration proves that she can win a couple more, maybe the championship will come down to the Breeders' Cup."