The only time Bruce Headley came close to going to the Kentucky Derby was in 1956.
Headley, 22 years old at the time and three years away from obtaining his first training license, was the exercise rider for No Regrets, a 3-year-old owned by W.E. (Buck) Britt.
No Regrets, with Johnny Longden riding, won the California Derby at the old Tanforan track, earning a trip to Churchill Downs.
But Headley wasn't along for the ride. He and Britt, an oil and cattle man, had a disagreement about Headley's pay.
"The owner didn't want to give me any of the stakes money," Headley recalled the other day. "He said I was a free-lance rider and wasn't part of the stable. I quit on the spot."
A 52-1 longshot in the Kentucky Derby that was won by Needles, No Regrets finished seventh. Two weeks later and still the longshot, No Regrets ran third, behind Fabius and Needles, in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
Headley thought he deserved better from Britt. "I had worked hard with that horse," Headley said. "I had taught him to change leads (switching from one lead foot to another) by working with him in the mornings."
Bruce Headley always works hard. Just turned 52, Headley gallops as many as a dozen of the horses in his barn, and it's never paid off any more than this season at Santa Anita.
Not only is he battling Mel Stute, Wayne Lukas and Charlie Whittingham for the training lead, he's also had five stakes winners; and one of them, an easygoing colt named Variety Road, has an outside chance of getting Headley to the Derby, 30 years later.
Variety Road is one of only five horses entered today in the $125,000 San Felipe Handicap, considered a major 3-year-old stake and one that Affirmed successfully used in becoming the last horse to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978.
Although Variety Road has won only two races in seven starts, he has four seconds and his last outing resulted in his first stakes win, a half-length victory over Ferdinand in the San Rafael Feb. 22. Ferdinand isn't running in the San Rafael and neither is Snow Chief, the Kentucky Derby favorite who'll make his next start--and final pre-Derby appearance--in the Santa Anita Derby April 6.
Variety Road has twice been unable to beat Snow Chief at Santa Anita, but he finished second both times, losing by a head in the Ridder Stakes last November and finishing four lengths behind in the California Breeders' Champion Stakes Jan. 12.
The superlatives that have been doled out for Snow Chief don't fit yet for Variety Road, a son of 1973 Hollywood Gold Cup winner Kennedy Road. Variety Road was bred and is owned by Kjell Qvale, a San Francisco automobile dealer who has raced horses with Headley for more than 20 years.
"Variety Road is just a competent horse," Headley says. "He's quiet to be around and he takes good care of himself."
The Santa Anita season had been good for Headley even before Variety Road's win in the San Rafael. All five of the trainer's stakes winners--the others are Balcony Pass, Her Royalty, Silveyville and Halo Folks (a 2-length winner as the 3-10 favorite in the 6 1/2-furlong $70,000 Potero Grande Handicap at Santa Anita Saturday)--are California-breds. In an unusual plan, Headley and Qvale have been able to win with Silveyville between his trips to a stud farm.
It's appropriate that Headley would be thriving at Santa Anita. During a time when the track has come under fire from some trainers and owners because of breakdowns, Headley defends Santa Anita.
"I feel Santa Anita is a safe track," Headley said. "They renovate--by leveling and softening the dirt--and scientific studies show that that is the most important aspect of track safety. An independent veterinary study showed that Santa Anita is the safest track in Southern California."
Headley trained Variety Queen, the stakes-winning dam of Variety Road, who is now in foal to Silveyville.
As for the experience long ago with Kentucky Derby runner No Regrets, Headley's memories aren't all negative.
"Dick Waggoner trained him, and he and I had no problems," Headley said. "In fact, I learned a lot from Dick about the right way to feed horses. He taught me how important it was that the mixture of grains be right for each horse."
Whatever Headley's feeding his horses these days, other trainers might want to copy.