Veterans Stevens, Headley Unite in SA Derby

Veterans Stevens, Headley Unite in SA Derby
Photo: Benoit Photo
Gary Stevens

In terms of Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) wins, trainer Bruce Headley is a rookie despite his 78 years. Jockey Gary Stevens, on the other hand, has won the West Coast's major 3-year-old race a record nine times.

Headley and Stevens, no youngster himself at 50, team up April 6 when Stevens rides Storm Fighter for Headley in the Santa Anita Derby, a major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

Headley has never won the Santa Anita Derby, whose winners have gone on to capture the Run for the Roses nine times. A trainer of the hay, oats, and water philosophy since he began his career in 1963, the California native was second once, in 1992 with Bertrando, who led into the stretch before 9-10 favorite A.P. Indy overtook him under Eddie Delahoussaye to win by nearly two lengths.

"Bertrando was a great horse and a great stallion, who still has his progeny doing well at the races," said Headley, who on Saturday tries his luck in the 76th Santa Anita Derby with the promising California-bred maiden winner Storm Fighter.

An Eclipse Award winner as champion older male in 1993 and a leading California sire before his retirement in 2011, Bertrando won or placed in 15 grade I or grade II stakes. He earned $3,185,610.

A bay colt by Stormin Fever   out of the Deputy Commander mare Throne Seeker, Storm Fighter is owned by one of the state's iconic Thoroughbred operations, Golden Eagle Farm.

"They've had great horses at Golden Eagle and this one is an exceptionally good-looking horse," Headley said of Storm Fighter, who broke his maiden against older horses March 2 by nearly six lengths going 1 1/16 miles with Stevens aboard. "He looks like a mile and a quarter horse, with high withers, big shoulders and big girth. He's a big horse."

It doesn't hurt his chances that Headley has Stevens riding with his record number of Santa Anita Derby victories. This will Stevens' his first ride in the race since coming out of a seven-year retirement three months ago. His last Santa Anita Derby win came in 2003 aboard Buddy Gil.

"We're lucky to have Stevens," Headley said.

The feeling is mutual.

"I love my draw," the Hall of Fame jockey said of post 7. "It's a perfect fit."

Stevens also spoke of Storm Fighter's impressive maiden win.

"I told them I was just going to let him get away from there and he sat 3 1/2 lengths off an almost 24 first quarter and a 47 half. He was very kind, very ratable, and finished up the right way. His works have been outstanding since he's come back from that race."

Stevens was aboard Storm Fighter for a 1:40 4/5 mile drill over the Santa Anita main track March 25. Storm Fighter came back to work a handy :59 3/5 for five furlongs April 1, second fastest of 23 on the morning.

"The only work I rode him was the mile where he went 1:40," Stevens said. "He finished up the right way that morning, so I'm pleased and they're pleased."

Stevens is scheduled to leave for Keeneland after Sunday's riding engagements at Santa Anita. "I ride Wednesday, Thursday and Friday there, and ride in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) on Saturday (April 13)."

He will be aboard Oxbow   for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas in the Arkansas Derby.

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