ARCADIA, Calif. (Jan. 15, 2021)–Veteran California-based trainer Bruce Headley, the developer of 2000 Eclipse Champion Sprinter Kona Gold and many other stakes winners, died this morning at Arcadia Methodist Hospital from the effects of a stroke at age 86.
Born Feb. 17, 1934 in nearby Baldwin Park, Headley was first introduced to racing at Santa Anita by an aunt at age six. At age 14, he was mucking stalls and walking hots alongside a diminutive 16-year-old from El Monte named Willie Shoemaker at the Suzy Q Ranch in La Puente and from there, it was all racetrack–Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, the LA County Fairgrounds, Bay Meadows, Tanforan, Golden Gate Fields and more.
“I started out with nothing and grew up learning under great horsemen,” said Headley in an interview with Dan Ross of Thoroughbred Daily Commentary in April, 2015. “I grew up watching trainers like Charlie Whittingham, Buster Millerick, Les Holt and Ralph West…But the only difference between me and other great trainers is that they train for other people and I’ve always trained for myself.”
Headley, whose barn was always replete with chickens, country music and plenty of Headley-bred and raised California-breds, may’ve “started out with nothing,” but his street smart instincts and his 59-year marriage to his wife Aase (Oh-sah) resulted in considerable wealth that included local real estate holdings and a sizeable art and automobile collection.
Headley, who never graduated high school, met Aase at Golden Gate Fields in 1959, married in 1962, and was always quick to credit her for any success he may’ve had.
“If I didn’t marry this beautiful genius, I wouldn’t have managed what I did,” he said in the same interview. “She always would save money for us to buy horses at the sales…I think I married a wife who loved racing even more than I did.
“I’ve always invested my own money since I’ve started and owned the majority of my horses, which gives you the purse as well as everything you make when you sell them,” continued Headley in his interview with Ross. “No other trainer today has done what I’ve done.”
One resounding hallmark of Headley’s training career was that he was never in a hurry with any horse. Derby Fever was not an affliction from which he suffered and due to his patience and tremendous instincts, he developed stakes winners from pedigrees that many “experts” scoffed at. Another hallmark was that Headley believed in the power of Mother Nature when it came to developing a Thoroughbred.
“I did it completely on hay, oats and water,” he told Ross. “I don’t have sore horses. If I do, I turn them out…I rest them. That’s why I’ve had stakes winners aged five, six, seven, eight and nine. That’s why there’s only four horses that have won graded stakes races at nine years of age at Santa Anita, and I’ve trained two of them–Kona Gold (2003 Grade III El Conejo Handicap) and Softshoe Sure Shot (1995 Grade II San Carlos Handicap). My horses last, you see.”
A natural athlete, Headley got on as many as 10 to 15 of his own horses each morning at Santa Anita until about 10 years ago when health issues relegated him to being afoot. Slowed the past couple of years by cardiac issues, Headley’s stable had been greatly reduced in number as daughter Karen and son Gus are now training horses at both Santa Anita and Los Alamitos.
A licensed trainer at age 25, Headley’s first winner came at the LA County Fair’s half mile bullring in Pomona, as his very first horse, Thorium, purchased for $500, broke her maiden on Sept. 29, 1959.
Hall of Fame retired jockey Chris McCarron, who enjoyed tremendous success when paired with Headley over the course of more than 20 years, encapsulated the feelings of many in the racetrack community via twitter this afternoon.
“He’s a throwback to the old days, a pure horseman through and through,” McCarron said. “An excellent caretaker, a great family man, and a heck of a human being.”
With 123 career stakes victories, the highlight of Headley’s career came when Kona Gold, who he owned in partnership with Irwin and Andrew Molasky, won the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. Kona Gold debuted at age four and amassed a career mark of 30-14-7-2, earning $2,293,384. A winner at age nine of Santa Anita’s Grade III El Conejo Handicap, Kona Gold ran in a record five Breeders’ Cup Sprints, his final Sprint appearance being a fourth place finish at Arlington Park at age eight in 2002.
Third with his only starter this year, Headley had 902 wins from 6,121 career starters, who amassed earnings of $38,682,030.
Headley’s many stakes winners included California-bred stars such as Silveyville, Softshoe Sure Shot, Variety Road, Variety Baby, Variety Queen, Her Royalty, Stylish Winner, Bertrando, Halo Folks and others.
A racetracker to his core, Bruce Headley could be coarse, funny and disarming. A poet, songwriter and blue collar philosopher, anyone who knew Bruce, knew he believed in all things natural, including practicing backstretch chiropractic for countless exercise riders and grooms for decades. A man who was well ahead of the national movement to normalize the use of hemp, he often referred to it with a wry smile as “Dry whiskey.”
Survived by his wife Aase, daughter Karen and son Gus, Headley leaves a rich legacy that will never be replicated. Memorial services are pending.
Press Release Santa Anita/ Photo Credit Benoit Photo