07/10/2005 11:00PM

Surf Cat the apple of an expert's eye

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Surf Cat, a blowout winner in the Swaps Stakes, is 71-year-old Bruce Headley's newest find.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Gus Headley stood with his mother, Aase, and his sister, Karen, in the breezeway outside the Hollywood Park jockeys' room last Saturday, watching the replay of the lopsided victory by the family's Surf Cat in the as if television never looked so good.

"Look at him," Gus said in whispered awe. "He even looks like Swaps."

Okay, so forgive the lad his youthful enthusiasm. Hanging around his father, Bruce Headley, young Gus must find his noggin stuffed with all manner of historical bric-a-brac, including tales of Bill Shoemaker as a wee teen, touch football games with Allen Jerkens, and eyewitness stories of the great Swaps himself.

As the elder Headley noted of his assistant trainer son, "He never even saw Swaps," which is true enough. But Bruce Headley, at the age of 71, has a way of channeling just about every great horseman he ever met, while deconstructing their greatest horses to learn the secrets of the breed. By the end of a session at the University of Bruce, anyone even half paying attention will feel like he has experienced the last 50 years of California racing, in living color.

"As a matter of fact, I galloped the horse who beat Swaps in his first stakes try," Headley said. "It was a horse named Back Hoe in the Westchester Stakes at Hollywood Park."

Well, that figures. Stir in the fact that Headley and Shoemaker were running mates long before Shoe became attached to Swaps, and that Headley studied Mesh Tenney like a book, whether Tenney was training Swaps, Prove It, Candy Spots, Olden Times or any of the other Rex Ellsworth horses of the mid-1950's and early 1960's. At the end of the day, it's crystal clear that Headley learned his lessons well.

"Swaps was the fastest horse I ever saw," Headley said in the wake of Surf Cat's five-length win. "He's a model for what I look for in a young horse. But his type is very hard to find. He had long legs, but yet he had almost a Quarter Horse body on top, a lot of muscle. A picture horse. He broke all of those world's records under a hold."

Headley was a 22-year-old horseplayer, exercise rider, and trainer-in-waiting when Swaps tore through the 1956 season, setting time standards at Hollywood Park for a mile, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/4 miles, and 1 5/8 miles. Since the records were set in California, East Coast snobs dismissed them out of hand, figuring the track was built by the same people who did the Pasadena Freeway. By the time someone pointed out that Swaps also established marks at Gulfstream and Arlington, the skeptics had already left the room.

Thus imprinted, Headley has spent his career searching for the ideal animal on a cafeteria budget. Surf Cat seems destined to add to the Headley legend that is already brimming with such major stakes winners as Kona Gold (bought for $35,000), Silveyville ($11,000), Got Koko ($30,000), Son of a Pistol ($23,000), and Halo Folks ($32,000).

Surf Cat, owned by the Headleys in partnership with Marsha Naify, cost all of $25,000 as a yearling at a Fasig-Tipton fall sale. For that kind of dough, you don't shop pedigree. When informed that Surf Cat's female family traces to the great Hall of Famer Exceller, Headley was both surprised and pleased.

"Don't know a thing about his family and I don't really care," Headley said. "I probably looked at 200, maybe 250 horses the day I bought Surf Cat. But I only picked three.

"He met all my requirements, even though each one will be a little bit different," Headley continued. "He was a little flatter muscled, a little longer-legged, a little more elegant. But yet he had all the bone, all the girth, the straight leg. The horses I like all have a real nice look to their top line. To see that is hard to do, and to explain it is even harder."

As a racehorse, with three wins and three close seconds in six starts, Surf Cat has yet to waste an afternoon. His Swaps effort was thrilling, especially since he blew a shoe in the paddock then hit the first turn so fast he fishtailed.

"I don't think he saw the rail," Headley said of that turn. "His vision was blocked by the horse inside him, and he wears those semi-cups, so he just probably thought he was supposed to run straight. As for the lost shoe, I think that affected his trainer a lot more than it did him."

Surf Cat might not be quite ready to go hunting for Afleet Alex, but he has put the rest of the active West Coast 3-year-olds neatly behind him.

"I'm already way ahead of where I thought I'd be with this horse," Headley said. "So I'll stay cool. I won't be forced into running anywhere."

Even so, Headley will consult his various oracles before moving to the next step.

"I had an advantage," Headley said. "I got to watch champions, and I've taken something from every one - guys like Red McDaniel, Bill Molter, Frank Childs, Carl Roles, Buster Millerick, Charlie Whittingham.

"There are a lot of trainers who think they're geniuses in their own mind," Headley added. "I prefer to put as many geniuses as I could in my mind."