07/27/2004 11:00PM

Mullins finds ace up Headley's sleeve

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The act of claiming a horse is racing's version of the World Poker Tour. In the case of Choctaw Nation, trainer Jeff Mullins says he picked up on a tell from trainer Bruce Headley and ended up with a winning hand.

Choctaw Nation was claimed out of his debut by Mullins on behalf of owner Bob Bone for $40,000. He won that day. He won the next time. And the next. And the next. Four of a kind. Now unbeaten in four starts, Choctaw Nation will make his stakes debut Sunday in the $250,000 San Diego Handicap, in which he will face Pleasantly Perfect, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup.

"This was like hitting the lottery," said Bone, who pores over tapes and charts every day to consult with his trainers regarding claims and to aid his own handicapping. "It was an educated guess. We were hoping to get an allowance horse. We had no idea he'd turn out this good."

Choctaw Nation, a 4-year-old gelding by Louis Quatorze, was purchased as a yearling for $35,000 by Headley on behalf of a partnership. He had been close to a start a couple of times at 3, but minor setbacks - "bruised feet, a cold, nothing major," according to Headley - kept him from starting.

Last winter at Santa Anita, Headley twice entered Choctaw Nation in maiden-claiming races for a price of $50,000. Both times, the races failed to fill. Finally, Headley entered Choctaw Nation for a $40,000 price against maiden-claimers Feb. 29.

"He was a 4-year-old maiden," said Headley. "I wanted to get him eligible for the starter-allowance series."

That Feb. 29 race had three entrants that piqued the interest of Bone and Mullins. According to both men, Mullins arrived at the paddock for that race with a claiming slip and an open mind. Bone subscribes to a handicapper service that had positive workout reports on Choctaw Nation. "Plus, Headley is careful with his horses," Bone said. "He's the kind of trainer who will wait and not run them unless they're right."

When the horses arrived in the paddock, Choctaw Nation stood out among the three horses under consideration, Mullins said. "He was the one I liked best."

And it wasn't just the way Choctaw Nation looked physically. According to Mullins, Headley was acting like a trainer who was trying to bluff. Mullins wasn't about to fold.

"They were hiding him in the saddling box, like they were afraid to lose him," Mullins said. "Headley brought him up with a blanket, bell boots, and polo bandages. He had good works, so we took a shot."

Choctaw Nation was last in the field of eight for the first half-mile of the 6 1/2-furlong race. Then, displaying the wicked late kick that has become his calling card, Choctaw Nation flew past his rivals to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

After the winner's circle picture, the claim tag was placed on his halter. Choctaw Nation was now the property of Bone and Mullins.

"I wouldn't have run him if I thought someone was going to take him," Headley said. "I thought he won like a nice horse. I just made a mistake. That's why they have erasers, because people make mistakes."

Headley said he does not know Mullins.

"I don't want to know him," said Headley. "Part of the problem around here is that there's only a few trainers who are buying yearlings and trying to develop them. The claiming trainers feed on them."

Any trainer could have claimed Choctaw Nation out of his debut. But only Mullins, along with Bone, took the risk.

Bone, 41, has been a racing fan since he was 7. A native of California, Bone first went to the races with his father when his family lived near Santa Anita. In college, Bone attended the State University of New York at Oswego. In the summers, he worked at Saratoga.

The means to own racehorses came because of a successful used-car dealership Bone runs from Shingle Springs, Calif., near Sacramento. He named his business Triple Crown Autos because, Bone said, " 'Bob's Used Cars' sounded too sleazy." Triple Crown Autos has four lots. Bone's silks have three crowns on the back, along with the caricature of a car.

In addition to Choctaw Nation, Bone's best runners have included Glick, a $40,000 claim in December 2003 who has won $145,780; the stakes-winning sprinter Captain Squire; and recent Claiming Crown winner Stage Player.

Bone estimated he has 45 horses in training, 18 with Mullins. He also has runners in northern California, Kentucky, and New York.

He's fulfilling a lifelong dream.

"Every kid wanted to go to the Super Bowl," Bone said. "I wanted to go to the Belmont Stakes."