ARCADIA, Calif. — Bruce Headley, the thoroughbred trainer who developed sprint champion Kona Gold and many other stakes winners during a 61-year career based in California, died at 86.
Santa Anita officials said Headley died at an Arcadia hospital from the effects of a stroke. He had been slowed in recent years by cardiac issues.
Headley was first introduced to racing at Santa Anita by an aunt at age six. At 14, he was mucking stalls and cooling out horses at a local ranch alongside 16-year-old Bill Shoemaker, who went on to become a Hall of Fame jockey.
Headley took out his trainer’s license at 25. He saddled his first winner with his very first horse, a $500 purchase who won at the Los Angeles County Fair on Sept. 29, 1959.
He had 902 victories from 6,121 career starters, who totaled earnings of $38,682,030. Headley had 123 career stakes victories. He bred and owned most of the horses he trained.
The highlight of Headley’s career came when Kona Gold won the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The horse had 14 wins in 30 career starts and earnings of $2,293,384. Kona Gold ran in a record five BC Sprints and won a Grade 3 stakes race at age nine. He won the 2001 Eclipse Award as the nation’s top sprinter.
Headley also had two seconds and five thirds in Breeders’ Cup races.
Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who enjoyed success with Headley for over 20 years, tweeted, “He’s a throwback to the old days, a pure horseman through and through. An excellent caretaker, a great family man, and a heck of a human being.”
He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Aase, daughter Karen and son Gus. His children are trainers, too.