07/13/2008 11:00PM

At 74, still the comeback kid

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The unspoken irony was as thick as the bedding in her stall. Bruce Headley, Brad Martin, and Emmanuel de Seroux were admiring the 5-year-old mare So Long Sonoma, a stakes-placed daughter of American Chance on the comeback trail, when an innocent bystander had the poor taste to repeat her name with intent to provoke.

"Her name is So Long Sonoma. Really."

"That's right," a poker-faced Headley replied.

"That's pretty funny, I guess," offered the visitor. "Who came up with that one?"

"Karen did," Headley said, nodding toward his daughter and assistant trainer.

"I did," the younger Headley confirmed. "You like it? Dad is the real name nazi, but he liked that one."

You've got to love an outfit that spits in the eye of its own misfortunes. So Long Sonoma has been around for a while. She was third in the 2006 Railbird Stakes and finished second in all six of her starts last year. But she had been out of sight for some time, and now she was getting ready for another one of those patented Headley comebacks, which means her name will be out there to remind all concerned of the bloodstock-related lawsuits filed by owner Jess Jackson against Headley, super-agent de Seroux, racing manager Martin, and others back in March of 2006.

Jackson, whose wine empire is based in California's Sonoma County, settled out of court last year with the three men standing in front of So Long Sonoma's stall. As the diplomatic de Seroux said, "Life goes on."

In Headley's case, though, the loss of Jackson's patronage and subsequent legal action was almost enough to rock him on his heels. Combined with California's transition to synthetic surfaces - which buffaloed the barn through 44 straight losses last year - there was a scary sensation that after half a century of idiosyncratic horsemanship, the enigmatic, entertaining Headley was on the ropes.

Didn't happen. Headley, in fact, now boasts what could be the most powerful barn he has ever enjoyed, peaking just in time for the Del Mar meet that opens on Wednesday with the first of 43 summer racing programs.

"Strong, real strong," is how Headley describes things in the far northwest corner of the rustic Del Mar backstretch, where Headley's vivid yellow webbings and halters have been on display since the 1970s. By way of illustration, Headley conducted a late-morning tour from stall to stall, occasionally nodding toward an unstarted 2-year-old cooling on the ring.

They will stay that way - unstarted - until they have turned 3, which is par for the course for Headley. To prove his point, that it pays to wait, he invited inspection of older stakes runners Surf Cat, Street Boss, Arson Squad, Magnificience, Silver Swallow, Black Wolf, and, yes, even So Long Sonoma. Nearly all of them spent extended time away from the game, nursing small wounds, only to come back into competition just as good as - or better than - when they left.

"There's only one reason I can do that," said Headley, who advocates a ban on race-day medications. "It's because I own most of them, too, as partners with people who accept how I do things. If a horse needs time, I give them time, and that's going to make you money in the long run."

Those partners include the Molasky family of Las Vegas and the Johnstons of California racing fame. Headley also has the distinction of training for both Marsha Naify, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, as well as Mace and Samantha Siegel.

"I have absolutely no concerns at all when it comes to this trainer and medication violations," Shapiro said, when asked of potential conflicts. "And his record as a horseman speaks for itself."

At 74, Headley summons memories of a distant California past populated by training giants named Whittingham, Wheeler, Millerick, and Childs. As heir to their legacy, Headley is also a unapologetic thorn in the side of traditional propriety. How else would you describe someone whose offtrack interests have included an appreciation of such historically controversial subjects as marijuana and cockfighting?

"You know where I got my first fighting chicken from? Ben Jones," Headley said with a grin. So there.

His horses could care less. But Del Mar will be a test. Deadly at home when he trains at Santa Anita, Headley has not been at his most productive during the summer season. In fact, his last major Del Mar stakes win came six years ago in the Rancho Bernardo Handicap with defending champ Kalookan Queen. Magnificience, fresh off her troubled second in the A Gleam, will try to win that race later in the meet. But first Surf Cat, winner of the 2008 Mervyn LeRoy, will have a crack at the $300,000 San Diego Handicap on Saturday.

Headley stepped into Surf Cat's stall and demanded admiration of the handsome, dark brown son of Sir Cat. Surf Cat was responsible for two of those 44 losses as the stable made the transition last year to synthetics, but he has been in good form this year, and neither horse nor trainer seemed concerned about how Del Mar's Polytrack would be playing.

"Dirt, synthetics, the San Bernardino Freeway," Headley said. "Just give me a chance and my horses can win a race on anything."DEL MAR, Calif. - The unspoken irony was as thick as the bedding in her stall. Bruce Headley, Brad Martin, and Emmanuel de Seroux were admiring the 5-year-old mare So Long Sonoma, a stakes-placed daughter of American Chance on the comeback trail, when an innocent bystander had the poor taste to repeat her name with intent to provoke.

"Her name is So Long Sonoma. Really."

"That's right," a poker-faced Headley replied.

"That's pretty funny, I guess," offered the visitor. "Who came up with that one?"

"Karen did," Headley said, nodding toward his daughter and assistant trainer.

"I did," the younger Headley confirmed. "You like it? Dad is the real name nazi, but he liked that one."

You've got to love an outfit that spits in the eye of its own misfortunes. So Long Sonoma has been around for a while. She was third in the 2006 Railbird Stakes and finished second in all six of her starts last year. But she had been out of sight for some time, and now she was getting ready for another one of those patented Headley comebacks, which means her name will be out there to remind all concerned of the bloodstock-related lawsuits filed by owner Jess Jackson against Headley, super-agent de Seroux, racing manager Martin, and others back in March of 2006.

Jackson, whose wine empire is based in California's Sonoma County, settled out of court last year with the three men standing in front of So Long Sonoma's stall. As the diplomatic de Seroux said, "Life goes on."

In Headley's case, though, the loss of Jackson's patronage and subsequent legal action was almost enough to rock him on his heels. Combined with California's transition to synthetic surfaces - which buffaloed the barn through 44 straight losses last year - there was a scary sensation that after half a century of idiosyncratic horsemanship, the enigmatic, entertaining Headley was on the ropes.

Didn't happen. Headley, in fact, now boasts what could be the most powerful barn he has ever enjoyed, peaking just in time for the Del Mar meet that opens on Wednesday with the first of 43 summer racing programs.

"Strong, real strong," is how Headley describes things in the far northwest corner of the rustic Del Mar backstretch, where Headley's vivid yellow webbings and halters have been on display since the 1970s. By way of illustration, Headley conducted a late-morning tour from stall to stall, occasionally nodding toward an unstarted 2-year-old cooling on the ring.

They will stay that way - unstarted - until they have turned 3, which is par for the course for Headley. To prove his point, that it pays to wait, he invited inspection of older stakes runners Surf Cat, Street Boss, Arson Squad, Magnificience, Silver Swallow, Black Wolf, and, yes, even So Long Sonoma. Nearly all of them spent extended time away from the game, nursing small wounds, only to come back into competition just as good as - or better than - when they left.

"There's only one reason I can do that," said Headley, who advocates a ban on race-day medications. "It's because I own most of them, too, as partners with people who accept how I do things. If a horse needs time, I give them time, and that's going to make you money in the long run."

Those partners include the Molasky family of Las Vegas and the Johnstons of California racing fame. Headley also has the distinction of training for both Marsha Naify, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, as well as Mace and Samantha Siegel.

"I have absolutely no concerns at all when it comes to this trainer and medication violations," Shapiro said, when asked of potential conflicts. "And his record as a horseman speaks for itself."

At 74, Headley summons memories of a distant California past populated by training giants named Whittingham, Wheeler, Millerick, and Childs. As heir to their legacy, Headley is also a unapologetic thorn in the side of traditional propriety. How else would you describe someone whose offtrack interests have included an appreciation of such historically controversial subjects as marijuana and cockfighting?

"You know where I got my first fighting chicken from? Ben Jones," Headley said with a grin. So there.

His horses could care less. But Del Mar will be a test. Deadly at home when he trains at Santa Anita, Headley has not been at his most productive during the summer season. In fact, his last major Del Mar stakes win came six years ago in the Rancho Bernardo Handicap with defending champ Kalookan Queen. Magnificience, fresh off her troubled second in the A Gleam, will try to win that race later in the meet. But first Surf Cat, winner of the 2008 Mervyn LeRoy, will have a crack at the $300,000 San Diego Handicap on Saturday.

Headley stepped into Surf Cat's stall and demanded admiration of the handsome, dark brown son of Sir Cat. Surf Cat was responsible for two of those 44 losses as the stable made the transition last year to synthetics, but he has been in good form this year, and neither horse nor trainer seemed concerned about how Del Mar's Polytrack would be playing.

"Dirt, synthetics, the San Bernardino Freeway," Headley said. "Just give me a chance and my horses can win a race on anything."