07/21/2003 11:00PM

At 9, Kona Gold still a cream puff

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Bruce Headley walked about three-quarters of the length of his barn's shed row before stopping outside the stall of a tall bay horse who looked like he was trying to nap. "Here's King Kong," Headley said. And with that introduction, Kona Gold decided to prove his trainer prescient. He stepped to the front of his stall and tried to nip at a visitor.

He may be 9 years old, but Kona Gold still appears to retain his youthful enthusiasm. Much of that is owed to the judicious training of Headley, who has spaced Kona Gold's races throughout his career; he has made just 29 starts. By doing so, Kona Gold continues to race against the best sprinters on this circuit, and he has become one of the most popular horses in Southern California.

"He's got a lot of fans," Headley said. "We get letters. It's amazing how many people love him and admire him."

No group loves him or admires Kona Gold more than the fans at Del Mar. Kona Gold has raced at this track five times, and has never lost. Two of those victories came in the $200,000 Bing Crosby Handicap, which Kona Gold will attempt to win for the third time on Saturday.

Kona Gold's victory in 2001 was the highlight of that summer's season. He ran down the younger Caller One in the final yards, and when jockey Alex Solis brought Kona Gold back to the winner's circle, he was greeted by a lengthy, loud, and heartfelt cheer.

Kona Gold has won just twice in nine starts since then. He skipped last year's Bing Crosby because Headley was upset with the weight assignment. Headley has for more than a year maintained that Kona Gold is still paying the price for the prime of his career, and that the weights have not reflected his current form. But that is not to say Headley believes Kona Gold is a charity case. He thinks Kona Gold can still perform well against the best.

"I train him exactly the same way as before. I'm lucky that he's a real sound horse. And he loves to run," said Headley, who also is a co-owner of Kona Gold with Andrew and Irwin Molasky.

As a concession to Kona Gold's advancing age, Headley takes Kona Gold to the track for his training right after the 6 a.m. renovation break, to keep him from getting too worked up. "He's the first one on the track," said Headley's son, Gus, who works for his father. "He doesn't see another horse until he gets off the track."

Headley also gave Kona Gold a brief vacation this spring after he finished third in the March 29 Potrero Grande Handicap at Santa Anita.

"I pulled his shoes off, took him home, and let him stand in ankle-deep clover," Headley said. "He just stood out in the sun and walked around barefoot."

Kona Gold made a mere three starts last year, and has raced just three times so far this year. If all goes to plan, Kona Gold will run in the Bing Crosby, then wait for the Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting as a prep for the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

"When a horse is a younger he can do more," Headley said. "He knows the game now, so he doesn't have to run his races close together. And he's a tremendous work horse. He puts a lot of effort into his morning workouts. You give him a target, and he gets after it."

Headley chooses to skip Hollywood Park, and focus solely on stakes at Santa Anita and Del Mar with Kona Gold. He also points for the Breeders' Cup every year; Kona Gold won the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 2000 at Churchill Downs. Last year, Kona Gold became the first horse to run in the Breeders' Cup five times. Headley wants to make it six this year. And he wants to take a shot at winning a stakes race with Kona Gold at age 10 next spring at Santa Anita.

"I'd like to be the first to win a stakes race at Santa Anita with a 10-year-old," Headley said. "I've got two of the four 9-year-olds who did it, Kona and Softshoe Sure Shot. Even John Henry didn't win a stakes race at Santa Anita when he was 9."

Both Softshoe Sure Shot and now Kona Gold have been cared for by Juan Soto, a tall, lanky groom who has worked with Headley for years. Soto also is entrusted with Got Koko, who swept the La Canada Series for 4-year-old fillies last winter at Santa Anita. "He's a great caretaker," Headley said.

It takes one to know one.