No frills Headley wins minus bells and whistles

Jul 31, 2007 4:00 AM

When nasal strips came into vogue several years ago, Eddie Gregson was adamant against their use. The contraption allegedly aided a horse’s breathing, but Gregson would have none of it.

"You’d sooner see one of my horses wearing a dress," said the late trainer, who committed suicide in June of 2000. The fad has faded. These days, you’d sooner see Michael Vick doing an Alpo commercial.

Eddie Gregson was old school, but no more than Bruce Headley. In this day of ipods, emails and PCs, Bruce Headley is in the Dark Ages when it comes to employing state of the art technology. He doesn’t even have a cell phone. "I get to the barn at 3:30 in the morning," he said. "I don’t have time to be answering no cell phones."

What he does have time for is training horses, which at 73, he continues to do with an understated passion, sans the snake oil ideologies some trainers fancy. If he’d have been in the Garden of Eden, Eve never would have bit the apple. You rarely see Headley schmoozing in the morning at Santa Anita’s version of Starbucks, Clockers’ Corner. More often, before sunup, the fundamentalist conditioner is on horseback, directing workouts. Factotums be damned. Headley is a hay, oats and water man of the first degree. "That’s all I use," he says, adding words of contempt for peers who desecrate the California Horse Racing Board’s medication regulations. "What I use on my horses goes through their digestive system, not through the veins."

The fact that Headley, a native Californian who was born in Baldwin Park and resides in Arcadia, had yet to win a race over one of Southern California’s new-fangled synthetic surfaces in 34 attempts has nothing to do with it, he says.

"I thought all my horses ran good (over the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, where he was 0 for 27, with eight seconds and one third)," Headley said. "I had a bunch of seconds and I had a couple of horses that should have won. That’s just racing luck, that’s all. But they were all very consistent." Headley was winless with his first seven runners on Del Mar’s Polytrack.

Headley’s home base of Santa Anita currently is installing Cushion Track. Thus, he is unable to train there and has moved his horses to Del Mar and Fairplex Park in Pomona."We’re all hoping for the best with the Polytrack at Del Mar," Headley said, "but it’s still an experiment."

Assumptions abound on the innovative surfaces, but Headley, a purist to the core, is unfazed with unsubstantiated projections on how horses will fare on non-traditional surfaces. "I don’t care if they run on a paved road," he said. "The fastest horse will win. Those theories are bulls””."

Headley has the record to prove it. Among the outstanding horses he has trained in a career of nearly 50 years are the champion sprinter of 2000, Kona Gold; Bertrando, Surf Cat, Arson Squad, Son of a Pistol, Kalookan Queen, Got Koko and Softshoe Sure Shot. Kona Gold and Softshoe Sure Shot, now in their teens, still earn their keep as ponies at the Headley barn.

Hosts of horse sales do not gush and roll out the red carpet when Headley arrives, because he relies on a keen eye and a quiescent bankroll in selecting his stock. He and his loyal investors rarely spend six figures on a prospect. Kona Gold, who was retired at age nine in 2003, won 11 stakes races and 14 overall from 31 starts, earning $2,293,284. Headley bought him for $35,000.

"I recently returned from the Keeneland sales and only saw two other trainers from California there," Headley said, "so it appears that California is shrinking to just claiming trainers. That’s why the horse population is diminishing. In the old days, every trainer developed their horses. They’d all buy yearlings and start from scratch. Not any more.

"Sure, it would help if some outfits come here from the East Coast, but I don’t expect any help from guys out here who don’t know anything about how to develop a horse. All they know is how to claim off of one another, and that’s the real problem. It’s never been the racing surface; it’s modern medication."

The homestretch

”¡ Headley said Surf Cat is not eligible for the Breeders’ Cup races on Oct. 27, but likely would be supplemented (for $90,000) should circumstances warrant. "He can run any distance, so it probably would be one of the distance races," Headley said. His unbeaten filly, Magnificience, is in a pasture outside of Headley’s home where she is recovering from removal of a chip in her left front ankle "in the sun and the sand and the grass, and doing great." Headley hopes she can begin her comeback in about two months.

”¡ One horse not likely to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic is Discreet Cat, who trailed throughout in the Dubai World Cup last March 31 and has not raced since. The 4-year-old son of Forestry was suffering from a throat infection which caused blockage that impaired his breathing when he lost for the first time in his career.

"Discreet Cat came back to New York on Preakness Day (May 19)," said Godolphin assistant trainer Rick Mettee. "He’s been jogging for a couple of weeks and just last Tuesday (July 24) began to gallop. He’s doing really well. He’s sound and healthy now, but I don’t think he’ll make any races at Saratoga. We’re probably looking at Belmont’s fall meet."

Mettee said Godolphin’s brain trust, which includes Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford, have pretty much ruled out another mile and a quarter race, the distance of the Dubai World Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The new Breeders’ Cup Mile on dirt would be more likely.

"I think they’ve moved away from a mile and a quarter, so they’d be considering any distance from six furlongs to a mile," Mettee said. "But basically, we just want to get him back to the races. Hopefully, he’s healed fine and we can get him up to a fast-speed workout. He was pretty sick in Dubai. They were calling specialists from all over the world, because they had never seen anything like what he had in a thoroughbred."

”¡. Seems like retired NBA referee Tim Donaghy was a staunch advocate of the gambling credo, "It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you cover the spread."