01/24/2002 12:00AM

Tales from The Unknown


ARCADIA, Calif. - The town of Caloocan sits just north of Manila, hard by Manila Bay, and for nine years Luis Asistio served the people of Caloocan as their congressman in the Philippine legislature. It wasn't an easy job, as anyone knows if they've paid any attention to the news. The Philippines tends to make headlines, and not just because of Imelda's shoes.

Half a world away, the mare named Kalookan Queen wakes up each day in a corner of the Santa Anita stables. She is the apple of Asistio's eye. He is retired from politics now, but passionately committed to horse racing, much to the delight of his trainer, Bruce Headley.

"We found her at Pomona, in the Barretts sale, and I thought Mr. Asistio wanted to go to about $250,000," said Headley. "That's where I quit, then Mr. Asistio took over, and went up to $275,000."

That was 1998. Now Kalookan Queen is 6, and a "monster of a mare" in Headley's words, primed to fulfill her destiny in the Santa Monica Handicap at Santa Anita on Saturday.

"She was second in the race two years ago," Asistio said, referring to Kalookan Queen's one-length loss to Honest Lady in 2000. "She looks beautiful, and Bruce says she is ready."

At seven furlongs, the Santa Monica is a rare Grade 1 sprint for females, which gives the race a perceived value far beyond its $200,000 purse. No matter the number attached, though, it is always a hard race to win. Among the great mares adorning its history, dating back to 1957, are Bug Brush, Silver Spoon, Chou Croute, Typecast, Pine Tree Lane, and Serena's Song.

Headley is part of the mix. He won the Santa Monica in 1986 with Her Royalty, a California-bred mare who was ridden by Chris McCarron.

"Her Royalty was totally galloped by me, worked by me, bought by me, trained by me," Headley said, but he was being modest. He neglected to mention that he also owned Her Royalty in partnership with the Johnston family of Old English Rancho, where she was born and raised.

"She had one of the most magnificent bodies of any racemare," Headley went on. "A tremendous girth, tremendous hindquarters, a lot of elegance. She had the greatest face and head, and the smoothest movement. And she had 'The Unknown' training her."

Again, too modest. By the mid-1980's, Headley had established a reputation as a brilliant horseman who made the most of limited chances. He was also a bonafide racetrack character with a personality that mixed equal parts Timothy Leary and Hank Williams.

"Back then I was in my prime, I was getting on maybe 23 horses every day," Headley said. "I was applying what I had learned from watching the great R.H. McDaniel, and growing up with the master, Shoemaker.

"McDaniel trained in the 1950's," Headley continued. "His style was to go right into the gap with his horses, let them break right into a gallop, go a mile, mile and an eighth, and pull them right up. That's it. He gave horses a simple way of training, and the simplest means the most relaxing. You have to cultivate relaxation."

From Bill Shoemaker, Headley gleaned the fine points of balance. He learned that the weight on a horse is meaningful only if it is not carried properly. Most of the time it is not.

"When you go right into the gallop, you're putting a horse's head into the proper position from the time you start," he said. "You're floating along, exactly in the style of Shoemaker - ultimate momentum - and the horse is carrying its own neck. It took me a long time to put Shoemaker and McDaniel together, and understand why it worked."

At the age of 67, Headley no longer gets on nearly as many horses. ("I could work one tomorrow!" he insisted.) But his riders know the drill, and his horses always seem to be in constant motion during training hours.

"Back then, that's when they put up all those signs," he said. " 'No trotting in the tunnel, no moving in the gap, no coming in this way, no going out that way.' I was appearing so many places they couldn't keep up with their signs, trying to control me!

"One day McCarron weighed me after we worked Her Royalty out of the gate," Headley added. "I was six wide while he was on the rail, because there wasn't nothing I wasn't teaching them. Afterwards, McCarron took me over and weighed me at Eddie Gregson's barn. I was 186. It was proof, you can carry your own energy. That, and I was sitting on a runner."

The Santa Monica was Her Royalty's eighth win after just 14 starts. North Sider, who went on to win an Eclipse Award in 1987, finished second.

"I don't remember who was second," Headley said. "All I remember is that after I saddled her, the people looked around and I was gone. They were in the presence of a disappearing act. I went where nobody knew who I was. She went off at around 8-1 and won by many."

Actually, Her Royalty won by 1 1/4 lengths at odds of 8-5. But it was a long time ago, and that's not the point. What matters most is that Kalookan Queen appears to be a mare cast in the same generous mold.