03/27/2003 12:00AM

Kona Gold after historic triple

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Kona Gold is the only horse to win two runnings of the $200,000 Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap, which will be run for the 21st time Saturday at Santa Anita.

A 9-year-old gelding, he won the Potrero Grande in 2000, the year he won the Eclipse Award as the nation's champion sprinter, and repeated the following year.

A lot has changed since then.

Trainer Bruce Headley said earlier this week that Kona Gold is not as sharp as he was in 2000, but insists he can be effective in major stakes. A winner of $2.2 million, Kona Gold will face six opponents in the Grade 2 Potrero Grande, which will be run at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Kona Gold is after more than just a chance at a historic third win. A victory would erase the disappointment of a sixth-place finish in the Palos Verdes Handicap Jan. 26. In that six-furlong race, he appeared poised to challenge the leaders at the top of the stretch, but faded in the final furlong.

Kona Gold was not entered for the San Carlos Handicap March 2 because Headley was not satisfied with the weight assignment. Instead, Headley focused on the Potrero Grande.

"I hope to win," Headley said. "He's dropped three pounds since his last race."

Kona Gold carries top weight of 121 pounds and will likely race from his typical stalking spot. Corey Nakatani rides Kona Gold for the first time, replacing regular rider Alex Solis, who is in Dubai.

"I put Corey on because I have confidence in his ability," Headley said.

Kona Gold drew post 6, outside of expected pacesetters FJ's Pace and Martel. FJ's Pace won a $100,000 claiming race at 6 1/2 furlongs March 1 and finished second in the Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park in December.

Martel has been entered as a pacesetter for entrymate Debonair Joe, the surprise winner of the Underwood and Grade 1 Malibu Stakes in December. Bluesthestandard, who was supplemented for $4,000 last weekend, may also be part of the pace.

Headley is hoping that Kona Gold can duplicate his performance in the El Conejo Handicap on Jan. 1, when he snuck through along the rail in early stretch and scored a neck victory for his 11th stakes win.

"He was fortunate to get through along the rail," Headley said.

A bit of luck could help Kona Gold win the Potrero Grande again Saturday, and add a milestone to a remarkable career.

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