07/26/2001 11:00PM

Kona Gold's Crosby even stronger than it appeared

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LEXINGTON, Ky - Kona Gold's victory in last Sunday's Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap was much more impressive than his three-quarter length win margin suggests. If you'd like to fully appreciate the strength of his triumph, take a close look at the fractions of the race.

Caller One was loose on the lead with a five-length advantage over Kona Gold through a 22.02-second opening quarter. How slow was that split for a Grade 1 quality sprinter? By way of comparison, Time for Romance, a 4-year-old filly running for a $20,000 claiming price, who had never finished closer than sixth versus winners before that race, was fast enough to carve out a 21.92-second quarter-mile in the opener.

Corey Nakatani gave Caller One a smart ride when he attempted to capitalize on his five-length lead by putting Kona Gold away for good through a faster-than-par 22.25-second second quarter. Given the big head start and the talent required to lay down a hot second quarter, Caller One should have been uncatchable. But Kona Gold made a sensational mid-race move and gained 3 1/2 lengths through a second quarter-mile, which he covered in a remarkable 21 seconds and change.

Nevertheless, Kona Gold still faced a daunting task. Coming into this race, Caller One was a perfect 5-for-5 when allowed a lead of a length or more at each of the first three calls. He won those races by a combined margin of 28 1/2 lengths, an average of nearly six lengths per victory. How much energy could Kona Gold have had left in reserve after having worked so hard and gaining only 3 1/2 lengths of Caller One's five-length advantage?

Kona Gold had every right to be exhausted at that point, and seemed likely to lose his closing punch while pursuing a classy opponent who had distributed his speed more evenly than he had. When Caller One maintained his 1 1/2-length lead to the third call, his fans had to be optimistic. But Kona Gold is a champion, and took his game to the next level when he wore Caller One down, and edged clear late in the last furlong.

Some observers believe that the track bias might have hindered Caller One on Sunday. It is true that no horses who led at the first call held on to win any of the seven races on the main track. But Time for Romance, the $20,000 claiming filly who ran a faster opening quarter than Caller One did, missed winning gate-to-wire by only a half-length. So it was certainly within the realm of possibility for a front runner with Caller One's ability to take his field all of the way with help from a clear lead on a slow first quarter fraction.

Although a third-place finish in a four-horse field is easy to overlook, Swept Overboard's performance in the Bing Crosby was also impressive. He was only a head behind Kona Gold after a quarter-mile, lost 1 1/2 lengths to that rival when Kona Gold made his move during the second quarter, then rallied to within a head of Kona Gold with a furlong to go. Swept Overboard finished 1 1/4 lengths behind Kona Gold, and only a half-length behind Caller One, who was assisted by the pace scenario. It should be noted that Swept Overboard was making only his third start of the year, and should continue to improve. He will be worth a bet next time.