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DISTAFF / THE BREEDERS' CUP

Got Koko Could Become a Lone Star

No Texas-bred has won a Breeders' Cup race, but trainer Bruce Headley's horse has a chance to change that in the $2-million Distaff.

October 25, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Bruce Headley, a 69-year-old trainer who has never been to Texas, will be starting the Texas-bred Got Koko, the second choice on the morning line, in the $2-million Distaff.

"Never got around to going there," said Headley, when asked about Texas. "Maybe we'll take this filly home when they run the Breeders' Cup at Lone Star [Park near Dallas] next year."

The list of accomplished Texas-breds doesn't exactly run around the block. Assault, in 1946, and Middleground, in 1950, won the Kentucky Derby, and club-footed Assault was the seventh of 11 horses to sweep the Triple Crown. Stymie, a $1,500 claim by trainer Hirsch Jacobs, earned almost $1 million in the 1940s.

But in 19 years, no Texas-bred has won a Breeders' Cup race. Only four have tried, the best of them Groovy, an Eclipse Award winner but a horse who failed three times in the Sprint, finishing 10th, fourth and second in 1985, '86 and '87.

The Santa Anita-based Headley, who won the Sprint in 2000 with Kona Gold, a relentless gelding who ran in five Breeders' Cups, didn't care whether Got Koko was from Texas or Tel Aviv when he spotted the yearling daughter of Signal Tap and Baby North at a Keeneland auction in September 2000. Got Koko had been consigned by Eileen Hartis, of Sealey, Texas, who paid $11,000 for Baby North when she was pregnant with Got Koko.

"It was the end of the sale, maybe that's why I landed Got Koko for the price I did," said Headley, who eyeballs hundreds of horses at sales before buying a few for clients. In this case, the owners of Got Koko are Aase Headley, the trainer's wife, and Paul Leung, a restaurateur from San Gabriel.

It's more the looks than the bloodlines or the home state that attract Headley to a horse. He bought Kona Gold, another end-of-a-sale purchase, for $35,000.

"Got Koko met my criteria," Headley said. "She had a lot of bone and girth to her. Her top line was attractive. She had a small, smart head. I just liked the entire way she was strung together."

Although Azeri, last year's Distaff winner and horse of the year, was taken out of today's race because of a tendon injury that might end her career, the opener on the eight-race Breeders' Cup card is still loaded.

Got Koko, who beat an unwell Azeri last month at Santa Anita, ending Azeri's 11-race winning streak, still has Sightseek, Elloluv and Take Charge Lady to beat.

Sightseek is on a four-race Grade I winning streak, Elloluv finished second -- then was disqualified and dropped to fourth place -- the day Got Koko beat Azeri, and Take Charge Lady, sixth in last year's Distaff, has recently put together a couple of solid races.

Got Koko, only the second Texas-bred Headley has trained, is the only horse to have beaten both Azeri and Sightseek. She beat Sightseek in February, before Sightseek had raised her game.

Headley is a caring horseman, not a trainer who pushes his horses into races. He campaigned Kona Gold that way -- the horse was an 8-year-old when he won the Sprint, retiring with only 26 races on his record -- and he has brought along Got Koko the same way.

After sweeping the three-race La Canada series at Santa Anita this winter, Got Koko was a badly beaten fourth in the Santa Margarita Handicap in March.

"That was a listless performance, brought on by the toughness of the La Canada races," Headley said. "There was nothing physically wrong with her, but she had put her body on the line to win those three earlier races, and needed a rest. I kept her in light training until it was time to come back."

The return was five months later, when Got Koko ran second to Azeri at Del Mar. Six weeks later, Got Koko beat Azeri over the same track where Headley's filly will run the Distaff today. Alex Solis, who has ridden Got Koko in all but one of her 13 starts, will be aboard. Solis also won the Sprint with Kona Gold.

"Got Koko's already had a tremendous year, so if we win, it would be icing on the cake," Headley said. "And it'd be nice if my wife could win a Breeders' Cup race too."

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