08/18/2005 11:00PM

Surf Cat more than consolation for Headley

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Surf Cat will go in Sunday's Pacific Classic for Bruce Headley, who used to train such standouts as Choctaw Nation and El Roblar.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Everywhere he turns this summer at Del Mar, trainer Bruce Headley is reminded of what might have been. When he heads to the paddock on Sunday for the Grade 1, $1 million , Headley will see Choctaw Nation, who was claimed away from Headley in his first start by Jeff Mullins and has since earned more than $1 million.

In the mornings, Headley sees several of the horses he bought and first trained for wine magnate Jess Jackson, including El Roblar, one of this circuit's top 3-year-old turf runners, now trained by Richard Mandella.

Yet when Headley walks down the 35-horse shed row of his barn at the far west end of Del Mar's stable area, he still finds plenty of firepower. It is a testament to his skills as a trainer, and instincts that would make him a wily competitor on "Survivor," that Headley still could make off with this track's grandest prize with Surf Cat, the lone 3-year-old facing an accomplished group of older runners in the Pacific Classic.

"He's a runner," Headley said of Surf Cat, who most recently scored a five-length victory in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. "I think he's really going to run well. He's going a mile and a quarter, which he's made for. Three-year-olds have won it, so he's got history. He gets a weight advantage. And he has speed, but he can reserve his kick."

At 71, Headley has forged a reputation as a great horseman. To watch the respect horses have for Headley after he teaches them their early lessons in his back yard is to witness a dying art on the racetrack. No one has better-mannered horses.

But it was that single-minded devotion to horses that, Headley believes, led to his separation with Jackson, who owns the popular Kendall-Jackson winery. Headley began purchasing yearlings for Jackson two years ago, and helped him find farm property in Florida and Kentucky. But when Jackson hired a racing manager, Tom Bachman, to oversee his operation, Headley chafed.

"It was 30 days from the time Bachman took over until I was gone," Headley said. "I don't think I'm really, really good with racing managers. I'm living with the horse. I can't be told what to do by telephone. I know they're trying hard, they mean well, but they're not at the crash site. They don't know what the horse looks like each day.

"It's always bad to be a guy's first trainer," Headley said. "I'm thankful he's in the game, because he'll help the game. I wish him all the luck. It's like the gypsy woman said when I was a kid - you don't want vindictiveness and jealousy and envy and hatred. It's a hard thing to do, but you're better off if you're free of stress."

Headley long has pursued horses on a slim budget. Horses such as Kona Gold, the champion sprinter, and Got Koko cost about as much as a new midsized car. Jackson's largesse gave Headley the opportunity to play at a higher level, and while he still spent the money like it was his own, Headley had a bigger budget, and bought better-bred horses. All told, he had 33 horses in partnership with Jackson, representing nearly half his barn. All were removed from his care earlier this year and sent to several trainers.

"It was like a punch going in the blind side," he said. "It upset me a lot, because I love all my horses. I spent a lot of personal hours teaching them habits, manners, that will help their racing careers and their lives. I had grooms here with tears in their eyes when those horses left."

Headley looked down his shed row, and wistfully said, "Can you imagine how I was going to explode with the horses I had?"

Surf Cat has helped fill the void. He is a prototypical Headley find. The Sir Cat colt, who sold for $25,000 as a yearling in February 2003, was bought back at a sale in Kentucky that fall. Headley immediately negotiated a private purchase of Surf Cat, a dark bay colt with a half-moon-shaped star on his forehead. Surf Cat now races in the name of Headley's wife, Aase, and longtime client and friend Marsha Naify.

"I try to buy a horse that reminds me of a great horse," Headley said. "He reminded me a little of Ack Ack, a little of Bagdad. I'm having to go way back."

As is his custom, Headley was in no rush to get Surf Cat to the races. His horses are known for their long, productive careers. Surf Cat did not debut until Jan. 29.

"I was just taking my time, same as always," Headley said. "The patient trail. If you go too far too fast, your horse won't last."

In a little more than five months, Surf Cat went from an unstarted maiden to the winner of the Swaps Stakes. Headley considered sending Surf Cat to the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth earlier this month, but said he was unable to arrange flights for his longtime No. 1 groom, Juan Soto. The Haskell was won by the Bob Baffert-trained Roman Ruler.

"If you don't take your usual groom, the horse loses something," Headley said. "They lose that camaraderie, that familiarity. So, Mr. Baffert got a free roll."

And Surf Cat and Headley got to stay home and prepare for "Survivor: Del Mar," the Pacific Classic.