07/28/2003 12:00AM

Kona Gold done racing

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Kona Gold, who delighted Southern California fans by competing against the best sprinters in the West, and the nation, for six seasons, was retired on Sunday, one day after finishing fifth in Del Mar's Bing Crosby Handicap, his first career loss at Del Mar.

The popular 9-year-old gelding won graded stakes races every year from ages 5 through 9, including the 2000 Breeders' Cup Sprint, which secured for Kona Gold the Eclipse Award that year as champion sprinter. He also is the only horse to have competed in five Breeders' Cup races, having done so every year from 1998 to 2002. He finished second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 1999, third in 1998, and fourth in 2002.

But in recent months, Kona Gold had regressed from the prime of his career. After winning 12 of his first 20 starts, Kona Gold won just two of his last 10.

"Enough is enough," said Bruce Headley, who trained Kona Gold throughout his career and owned him in partnership with Andrew and Irwin Molasky. "It's time to let him retire. He doesn't have any speed anymore. He's 9 1/2 years old. He's done so much."

Kona Gold, a son of Java Gold out of the Slew o' Gold mare Double Sunrise, won 14 times in 30 starts, and earned $2,293,384. He made his first start on May 31, 1998, and his last more than five years later. He became only the fourth 9-year-old to win a stakes race at Santa Anita when he won the El Conejo Handicap earlier this year.

Kona Gold won 5 of 6 starts at Del Mar, including the Bing Crosby in 2000 and 2001. Headley said Del Mar officials approached him about having a day in Kona Gold's honor later this meet, and Headley was quite receptive to the idea.

After that, Headley said, Kona Gold would be turned out, then returned to the track, with the goal of turning him into a lead pony.

"He loves the track," Headley said. "We'll keep him here as a pony if he likes it."

Irwin Molasky said he and his son, Andrew, were grateful for Kona Gold's years of great racing, but were sad to have come to the realization his racing days are over.

"It was an honor to be part of such an animal," Molasky said. "He's such a great champion, and a favorite of everyone. We're thrilled with the career he had. We want him to go out on top. We'll let him hang around the track and enjoy life. He'll be set up for life."