Updated on 09/16/2011 8:56AM

Kona Gold, 9, back at it

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Benoit & Associates
Young at heart: Kona Gold - who turns 9 Wednesday - will celebrate by running as the highweight in Santa Anita's $100,000 El Conejo.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Kona Gold, the nation's champion sprinter of 2000, turns 9 on Wednesday, but trainer Bruce Headley doesn't think that the horse's best days are behind him.

"They say he's a couple of steps slower, but he's 20 steps faster than the rest," Headley said.

Headley's assessment will be tested when Kona Gold starts as the 123-pound highweight in the $100,000 El Conejo Handicap Wednesday at Santa Anita.

Kona Gold won the El Conejo Handicap as a 5-year-old in 1999. He is trying to become the third two-time winner of the race, joining To B. or Not (1981-82) and Freespool, who won it when it was run in January and December of 2000.

For Wednesday's running, Kona Gold drew the rail in the nine-horse field.

He will try to become the first 9-year-old to win the El Conejo and only the fifth 9-year-old to win a stakes at Santa Anita. The most recent was Softshoe Sure Shot in the 1995 San Carlos Handicap for Headley.

Kona Gold drew the rail, which is not ideal for his favored stalking style. He could be behind a wall of front-runners after the first furlong. Alex Solis rides Kona Gold.

The challengers include Avanzado, the winner of the Forest Hills Handicap at Belmont Park in October; Hombre Rapido, who set a track record over 5 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park on Dec. 20; and Giovannetti, who won the California Cup Starter Handicap in November.

Avanzado is favorably drawn in post 7, and can lead or stalk the pace. An Argentine import last year, Avanzado won his first three starts in this country, including the Pirate's Bounty Handicap at Del Mar. He finished seventh in the Grade 1 De Francis Dash at Laurel Park on Nov. 16, but trainer Doug O'Neill dismissed that loss.

"The track was very deep," he said. "It's not like tracks you see here - the wet-fast track - it had six inches of goo. I think he can win at this distance. He showed at Del Mar the type of speed he's got."

At the least, Kona Gold will have plenty of pace to chase. In his last start, he finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Arlington Park on Oct. 26, and has impressed Headley with his recent training as he tries for his 11th stakes win.

"I guess he's one in a million," Headley said. "He's feeling like a million bucks. The whole thing is astonishing."

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