Updated on 09/17/2011 10:48AM

Kona Gold: Still king?

Trainer Bruce Headley (in dark glasses) leads Kona Gold on a morning workout.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Kona Gold has been down this road before. He's heavily favored, high weighted, and has nothing left to prove Sunday in the Grade 2 - other than that he is still the king sprinter of California.

Based on the slim margin of his last victory - a neck - Kona Gold's advantage is narrowing.

"He may have lost a few steps, but he hasn't lost his will to win," said Bruce Headley, who has trained Kona Gold through a 27-race career in which he has won 14 races and more than $2.2 million. On Sunday, Kona Gold tries to become the first 9-year-old to win two graded stakes at Santa Anita. He carries 124 pounds in the $150,000 Palos Verdes at six furlongs.

The Palos Verdes goes as race 7 on the eight-race card. Kona Gold's principal rivals include D'wildcat, winner of the Grade 1 De Francis Memorial Dash in his last start two months ago; comebacker Disturbingthepeace, the top sprinter in California during a three-race span last summer; Avanzado, who is adding blinkers and is poised for a potential upset; and speedball Hombre Rapido. Longshots include Radiata and Mellow Fellow. Echo Eddie is entered, but he was expected to run Saturday. First post Sunday is 11 a.m. because of the Super Bowl.

Winter at Santa Anita would not be the same without Kona Gold.

"He's been on this sequence of races before, and he only runs when he's right," Headley said.

In fact, Kona Gold's current agenda mirrors his 1999 campaign, when he won the El Conejo in his comeback, then was defeated at odds of 3-10 in the Palos Verdes. The loss established a pattern that has followed Kona Gold for five years. The veteran gelding typically runs his best race fresh, and is often vulnerable second start after a layoff.

Headley could have skipped the Palos Verdes and freshened Kona Gold for the Grade 1, $200,000 San Carlos Handicap on March 2.

"His physical condition determines his campaign," Headley said, adding that Kona Gold "is good now. This was supposed to be a wet winter; I won't run him on an off track."

February and March are still expected to be wet. In the meantime, Kona Gold will take advantage of the fast footing. Said Headley: "He's right, and he's ripe."

He might be ripe for an upset. Kona Gold required a ground-saving trip to defeat allowance-caliber Radiata by a neck Jan. 1 in the Grade 3 El Conejo, earning a modest

108 Beyer Speed Figure. If Kona Gold regresses in his second start back, Avanzado can score the upset. A winner of the Grade 2 Forest Hills Handicap last fall at Belmont, Avanzado lost his chance in the El Conejo with a slow start. Trainer Doug O'Neill does not expect that to happen again.

"We've school him a ton, and I've added blinkers to keep him focused," O'Neill said. "It seems to have really helped, but this is a tough race. Hopefully, Kona Gold runs out of real estate."

Avanzado won his first three U.S. starts after being imported from Argentina, and the pace and speed figures he earned last summer make him a legitimate contender Sunday. If Avanzado breaks well, he figures for a good trip just off speedball Hombre Rapido. If Avanzado can put that one away, he can win if he is good enough.

Quality is not the question regarding D'wildcat, who became a Grade 1 winner in his last start, on Nov. 16 at Laurel.

"The Palos Verdes isn't really our goal," trainer Bob Hess admitted. "We're not giving him one - we are trying to win - but I think he'll be better in the San Carlos or the Carter [April 12 at Aqueduct]."

D'wildcat has won five races and $560,044 from 14 starts, but he will need a hot pace to flatter his late kick. "The questions are, is he quick enough to get up at six furlongs, and can he beat Kona Gold?" said Hess.

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