10/04/2001 12:00AM

Countdown to the Cup: The Sprint (10/4)

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The heat turns up this weekend for several major

contenders for the $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Leading sprint hopefuls Kona Gold, Delaware Township, and Bet on Sunshine will have their final preps before the World Thoroughbred Championships on Oct. 27 at Belmont Park.

Kona Gold, the divisional leader and the Sprint's defending champion, will be favored in the Grade 1 Ancient Title Handicap at Santa Anita. At Belmont, Delaware Township is the likely favorite in Sunday's $250,000 Forest Hills Handicap. Saturday at Keeneland, Bet on Sunshine will be favored in his fifth appearance in the $250,000 Phoenix Stakes.

Kona Gold, who won the Ancient Title last year, has started in the last three Sprints, and the Ancient Title has been used as his final prep each time.

Kona Gold's trainer, Bruce Headley, said he didn't wish to deviate from that plan this year and isn't concerned about lacking a race over the Belmont surface.

"A runner is a runner on any track," Headley said.

A small field, including Freespool and Lexicon, is anticipated for the Ancient Title.

Paul McGee, Bet on Sunshine's trainer, said his 9-year-old has never been better. Bet on Sunshine, who finished third in both the Phoenix and the Sprint in 2000, won the Grade 3 Aristides and Arlington Sprint this year. "I think he has run some of his best races this year," McGee said.

Texas Glitter and Snow Ridge look like Bet on Sunshine's primary challengers.

Delaware Township won last year's Forest Hills before drawing a

horrendous post (14) in the Sprint and finishing 10th. Trainer Ben Perkins Jr. said the six-furlong Forest Hills is the perfect place to prepare Delaware Township, a come-from-behind sprinter, for the Sprint.

"Three-quarters suits him and will keep him sharp early for the Breeders' Cup," Perkins said.

Hook and Ladder, Peeping Tom, Disco Rico, Alannan, and Yonaguska are also expected in the Forest Hills. City Zip is possible.

Xtra Heat prepped for the Sprint in an unlikely spot last weekend, the $100,000 Sweet and Sassy Stakes at Delaware Park. She crushed three opponents for her 17th win from 20 starts and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 121, the highest any horse has earned this year. She also surpassed $1 million in earnings.

The waters will get significantly deeper for Xtra Heat when she faces males for the first time in the Sprint. Xtra Heat, however, does have history on her side, because the two times the Sprint was run at Belmont it was won by fillies, Safely Kept (1990) and Desert Stormer (1995).

"I'm not sure it's the right thing to do as good as she has been to us, said Xtra Heat's trainer John Salzman, "but I guess we'll try it."

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