05/31/2002 12:00AM

Kona Gold lightens up the racing world


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In her 1967 volume "Weight on the Thoroughbred Racehorse," Irene McCanliss addressed a popular misconception:

"The whole set-up of racing history contradicts any assumption that the handicap weighted race, as we know it, is the criterion by which a racehorse is to be judged." In fact, she added, "The absurd statement that . . . 'the handicap race is as old as racing itself' is simply not true."

Throughout history, England, France, and Ireland have relegated handicap races to the back pages of their racing programs. The 19th century racing sage known as Admiral Rous observed, "A handicap is intended to encourage bad horses, and to put them on a par with the best. It is a racing lottery - a vehicle for gambling on an extensive scale, producing the largest field of horses at the smallest expense."

Handicap races are a gimmick. They are a withered, ancient fad based on calculations so inexact that even the finest minds of 20th century racing had trouble explaining them. Walter Vosburgh, the man responsible for the firm establishment of handicaps in America in the 1920's and 30's, abandoned the idea of allowance races as unreliable and further noted that handicaps "relieve the secretary, or race committee, of the trouble of thinking." What a noble motivation.

But handicaps spread like fungus, fueled by parimutuel success, and soon they were carrying the kind of money certain to attract the fastest horses. Owners and trainers had no choice. Mythmakers tagged along for the ride. Before long, little children were being taught that to be great a horse had to carry, in the words of Grantland Rice, "a piano and piano player."

It is now the year 2002. Hopefully, enlightened policy-makers will beggin to see handicaps for what they are - disruptive, distracting, and ultimately embarrassing to the promotion of the game.

Try selling something to the public with the word "handicap" attached every weekend. Forget politically correct. The jargon of racing rarely translates anyway. Ask anyone on the street to define furlong, distaff, or breaking a maiden, then describe to them an event worth half a million dollars or more, designed to attract the finest athletes in the game, and destined to occupy precious space on television. Yep, that sounds like a handicap to me!

For his first start of 2002 in the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood on Sunday, the 8-year-old Kona Gold was assigned 125 pounds, six more than Full Moon Madness. Bruce Headley, the trainer of Kona Gold, balked at the idea of carrying 125 when two more handicaps await at Del Mar and Oak Tree.

Now, six pounds is approximately the weight of a plaster surfing monkey piggy bank containing eight bucks in change, or 24 McDonald's Quarter-Pounders. The actual difference between Kona Gold and Full Moon Madness is a more than a million in earnings, an Eclipse Award, and a Breeders' Cup trophy.

For a racing secretary to attempt such quantification is sheer folly. The alternative is obvious. Be brave, set allowance conditions for stakes races based upon tried-and-true formulas of money, distance, and recency. Then trainers and owners, with weight in hand from the start, will never have cause to complain.

"I hope he runs. I think he will," said Andrew Molasky, who owns Kona Gold in partnership with his father, Irwin Molasky, and Headley.

"I can't tell if he's changed as he's gotten older," Molasky added. "But when I see him work, he looks happy. And when they show me the color of his coat in his stall, there's a light emanating from it."

There has been a light surrounding Kona Gold from the beginning. He is one of the true stars horse fans come to see. When Kona Gold regressed last fall with tired races in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and the De Francis Memorial, Headley sent him to his backyard farm and pulled his shoes. Kona Gold was out of sight, but never out of mind.

Last December, about a week before Christmas, Andrew Molasky received the following note of thanks:

"My name is Tyler Hoffman, and I am 9 years old. My favorite horse is Kona Gold. Saturday, Dec. 8, 2001, was the happiest day of my life because I got to go to Mr. and Mrs. Headley's house to see Kona Gold. When I saw Kona my heart raced. Kona was a lot taller than I expected, but still beautiful. Mr. Headley gave me some carrots to feed Kona. When Kona saw that I had carrots in my hand, Kona came up and nudged my shoulder and gobbed all over my hand.

"Next Mr. Headley lifted me up onto Kona's back, and the groom walked Kona and me around a big yard that was Kona's play area, while my mom, dad, and grandpa took pictures of Kona and me.

"Before we left, I hugged and kissed Kona and told him 'When you come back I know you will be able to beat Xtra Heat, Caller One, Swept Overboard, and Squirtle Squirt easily.' When we left my heart was filled with love, joy and happiness."

Isn't that enough for any horse to carry?