For Thoroughbred owners, patience is more than a virtue. It's almost a prerequisite.
Susan Osborne of Glendale, Calif., has been in racing for half a century and she's had horses with trainer David Hofmans for almost a third of that time. On Saturday, she enjoyed her greatest racing triumph when Melatonin carried her Tarabilla Farm colors to a wire-to-wire victory under jockey Joe Talamo in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.
In February 2014, through agent Bob Feld, Osborne purchased Melatonin, a then-3-year-old Kentucky-bred gelding by Kodiak Kowboy who had just broken his maiden for trainer Jeff Bonde and owners John Cavalli and Mersad Metanovic. The latter, a bloodstock agent, bought the horse for $20,000 from Denali Stud at the 2012 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
“I wanted to buy him before that race when he ran third to Home Run Kitten,” Hofmans said, referring to another horse owned by Osborne in his barn. Hofmans was particularly high on Home Run Kitten, who immediately went into stakes company after that maiden win. “I said, 'Wow, that's a pretty nice horse,' and tried to buy him,” Hofmans said of Melatonin. “They wouldn't sell then.”
Shortly after the deal was consummated, Hofmans said Melatonin “just fell apart on me. When he broke his maiden he ran on a sealed track, and that jarred him all over the place. Then he showed symptoms of EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis). We treated him and he didn't respond.”
Osborne, in no hurry to try to get a return on her investment, told Hofmans, “Let's kick him out and let him grow up.” Melatonin went to John and Jerry Amerman's Peacefield Farm in Temecula, Calif., for some R&R.
He didn't race for another 18 months.
When Melatonin came back, Hofmans put a series of works into him and ran him in an Aug. 15 turf sprint at Del Mar. He won by 2 ¾ lengths under Talamo at odds of 30-1.
“He ran great, but he was overlooked in the betting,” Hofmans understated. “I don't work my horses fast. I prefer to work them a couple extra times rather than work them fast. If a horse works fast in my barn, it's sensational.”
Melatonin sprinted three more times, his best race a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Eddie D. Stakes at Santa Anita in October. Tyler Baze and Martin Garcia (twice) rode him in those races.
“Each jock said, 'You've got to run this horse long,'” Hofmans said. “He's by a miler and his bottom side is all short, but when we stretched him out, he ran awesome. It was such an impressive race.”
Talamo was back aboard for that Feb. 5 optional claimer/allowance race that Melatonin won easily by 3 3/4 lengths. “Joe stood up on him in the final sixteenth and just galloped him to the wire,” Hofmans said. “He got off in the winner's circle and said, 'You've got to run this horse in the Handicap.'”
Talamo and his agent, Scott McClellan, kept coming around Hofmans' Barn 76 and repeated the message. “Scotty, Joe and Brent (Hofmans' assistant trainer Brent Fabbri) were ganging up on me,” Hofmans recalled. “Joe said, 'This horse will run all day,' and I said, 'What does Joe know?'”
Osborne asked Hofmans what they were going to do. When he said Melatonin would be entered in Santa Anita's most famous race, the Big 'Cap, she responded, “Wire to wire, honey. Wire to wire.”
And that's exactly how it went.
Melatonin was engaged early by General A Rod, gradually pulled away on the final turn and drew off by 4 1/4 lengths, covering the mile and a quarter in 2:02.01.
“Joe Talamo was so confident it was unbelievable,” Hofmans said. “I couldn't dissuade him. And I think he had the opportunity to ride a couple of other horses in the race.”
So now, instead of a stakes-placed gelding with just two victories to his name, Osborne and Hofmans have a Grade 1 winner that has proven himself at the distance and over the track where the Breeders' Cup Classic will be held later this year. It's been 20 years since Hofmans saddled the late Georgia Ridder's Alphabet Soup for an upset over Cigar in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic at Woodbine. He's eager to try and win it again.
“Our goal is to keep him sound,” the trainer said of Melatonin. “Run him two times, maybe three at the most. He wants to be a fresh horse and to feel real good going into a race. We're not going to run him too much, though we really haven't sat down and mapped anything out.”
Hofmans compared Melatonin to Alphabet Soup, a son of Cozzene who won 10-of-24 starts, the Breeders' Cup Classic being his only Grade 1. “They are similar,” he said. “They are not the best horse around, but they try. They try their asses off and that causes them to win a race when they shouldn't. Both of them are fighters.”
Hofmans, now 73, has been around the racetrack most of his life. He grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and started going to Santa Anita with his parents as a kid. While attending Pasadena City College, he met Gary Jones, son of trainer Farrell Jones. That connection landed him a job on the backstretch at Santa Anita, first with Bob Wheeler and then as foreman and assistant trainer to Farrell Jones. He went out on his own in 1973.
Karen and Mickey Taylor were among his earliest clients and in 1975, Hofmans went with them to the Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale in Kentucky. They picked out a $17,500 yearling – a son of Bold Reasoning – for a partnership with Dr. Jim Hill and his wife, Sally. Instead of going to Hofmans, however, the big colt, later named Seattle Slew, would be sent to New York-based Billy Turner, who campaigned him through an unbeaten 2-year-old season and a sweep of the 1977 Triple Crown.
Does he ever think of what might have been? “Of course,” Hofmans said.
The victory by Melatonin was the first by Hofmans in the Santa Anita Handicap, but he's had plenty of previous big-race wins, including Touch Gold's Belmont Stakes and Awesome Again's Queen's Plate – both in 1997. Alphabet Soup's Classic victory is one of three Breeders' Cup wins for Hofmans, the others coming with Amerman Racing's Adoration in the 2003 Distaff and Tarabilla Farms' Desert Code in the 2008 Turf Sprint.
One of his favorite horses is William Boswell's homebred Greg's Gold, a California-bred gelding by Lake George who won the Grade 1 Bing Crosby at Del Mar in 2005 but “shredded his tendon” in the process.
Greg's Gold underwent stem cell surgery and came back 18 months later, racing 12 more times and winning two Grade 2 races and placing in Grade 1 company before being retired.
“I said to the owner, 'If this horse shows any signs of a problem, we are going to pull the plug,'” Hofmans recalled. “You have to have the right connections, people who are willing to give the horse enough time to develop into the kind of horse they can be. My clients have faith in old-time guys like me. New owners don't have as much patience.”
Despite his successes – Hofmans hit the 1,000-win milestone in 2012 – he's got a small stable that made just 102 starts in 2015.
“You get older,” he said. “I'm 73 now, and people just aren't interested in giving you a horse. They want the young guys who they think have all the energy. Even Charlie Whittingham, when he got older, owners forgot about him.”
Hofmans said training horses isn't a job but a lifestyle. “It's so time and energy intensive,” he said. On this particular day, after training hours and with no racing in the afternoon, he was watching race replays when a reporter called to talk about Melatonin.
“I should be celebrating in Hawaii on the beach like a regular human being,” he joked.
Hofmans is married to the former Linda Murray, widow of legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray. They had their first date in early 2011, shortly before Linda traveled to the East Coast to visit colleges on behalf of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, which awards journalism scholarships. Hofmans flew to Central Florida for a 2-year-old in training sale in Ocala. When he landed in Gainesville, Fla., Hofmans learned Linda was just 100 miles up the road across the Georgia border at Valdosta State University.
He headed north for a second date.
They were married a year later.
In 2013, Hofmans bred a foal by Council Member out of Divine Legacy (a Tarabilla Farm runner). He and wife Linda named the horse Valdosta Love in honor of their rendezvous and own him in partnership.
Valdosta Love made his debut Feb. 25 as an odds-on favorite in a maiden claiming race at Santa Anita. Things didn't go well. Valdosta Love had a rough start, was never a factor, then was pulled up by Talamo before reaching the stretch.
“He beat himself up. Stumbled, grabbed a quarter, hit his ankle on the other side,” Hofmans said of Valdosta Love. “I hope I can get him back to the races, but he'll need time. If not, maybe he'll be a good stable pony. This is even more difficult because I'm living with the owner.”
Does this particular owner have the required patience, Hofmans was asked.
“She's learning the hard way,” he said.
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