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Updated on 09/17/2011 11:09AM
Nakatani has rare opportunity
ARCADIA, Calif. - Only two jockeys have ridden Kona Gold in a remarkable career that has included an Eclipse Award as sprint champion, 11 stakes wins, and earnings of more than $2.2 million.
On Saturday, the small club is expected add a member if Kona Gold starts in the $200,000 Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita.
With regular rider Alex Solis booked to travel to Dubai for the World Cup program, Corey Nakatani has been given the mount. The only other jockey to ride Kona Gold was Chris McCarron, the retired Hall of Famer who was aboard for Kona Gold's career debut, way back in the spring of 1998.
While the Nakatani-Kona Gold partnership is not expected to be permanent, Nakatani was elated when he learned he had gained the mount.
"I feel honored," he said.
Nakatani has a strong record with sprinters, having won consecutive Breeders' Cup Sprints with Lit de Justice (1996), Elmhurst (1997), and Reraise (1998). Those results contributed to trainer Bruce Headley's decision to choose Nakatani.
"He's ridden a lot of speed champions," Headley said. "He's a good rider."
Nakatani has never ridden Kona Gold - "I've seen his tail a few times," he said - but has discussed strategy with Solis and Headley.
Headley said on Sunday that Kona Gold was not a confirmed starter in the Potrero Grande, which is run over 6 1/2 furlongs. Headley is sensitive to the weight assignment, saying that the 9-year-old Kona Gold is not as competitive as he was in recent years. In 2000, he won the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs and was named champion sprinter.
"He's not the Kona of 2000," he said. "It's 2003."
Weight assignments were scheduled to be released on Tuesday. Kona Gold has not started since he finished sixth as the 124-pound topweight in the Palos Verdes Handicap on Jan. 26. He was assigned 121 pounds for the San Carlos Handicap on March 2, but was not entered.
"If the weight is right, I'll run," Headley said of the Potrero Grande.
Headley said he would accept 120 pounds, but that if Kona Gold was assigned a higher figure, he "would have to talk to the owners," partners Irwin and Andrew Molasky.
If only for historic reasons, Headley said he would prefer to run. Kona Gold won the Potrero Grande in 2000 and 2001, the only horse to win the race twice in its
20-year history. Headley has won five runnings, including last year with the mare Kalookan Queen.
The Potrero Grande field is also expected to include D'wildcat, Debonair Joe, F J's Pace, Joey Franco, and Martel.
Joey Franco will be making his first start for trainer Darell Vienna. Owner Jerry Frankel recently transferred the 4-year-old from David Hofmans to Vienna.
Crafty C.T. will wait for next start
The Potrero Grande will not include Crafty C.T., the third-place finisher of the Breeders' Cup Sprint last fall who was second in the San Carlos Handicap.
Trainer Howard Zucker said he is likely to wait for the $350,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 12 for the 5-year-old Crafty C.T.
"I needed more time than the Potrero Grande allowed us," Zucker said.
In the San Carlos, Crafty C.T. was near the pace from the start and was passed in early stretch by Aldebaran, losing by five lengths. In his previous races, he showed a closing style.
"It wasn't the kind of trip the horse is used to," Zucker said. "Getting rushed to the front isn't what we wanted to do with him."
Espinoza and Baffert split
Jockey Victor Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert, the partnership that won the 2002 Kentucky Derby with War Emblem, have parted ways.
Espinoza was removed from the Baffert-trained Kafwain shortly after the Louisiana Derby on March 9. Relations further deteriorated over the weekend when the two appeared to have a disagreement following Espinoza's ride aboard the Baffert-trained Denied in Saturday's eighth race.
Denied was beaten 1 1/2 lengths in the allowance race over 1 1/16 miles, racing wide throughout.
At the top of the stretch, Denied was chasing the eventual winner, Total Impact, and racing alongside the Baffert-trained Tough Game, the 9-5 favorite. Gary Stevens, on Tough Game, attempted to go between Total Impact and Denied, but could not get through. Stevens switched Tough Game to the inside of Total Impact and closed some ground through the stretch, but finished a length behind Total Impact.
"We had our differences," Baffert said on Monday about Espinoza. "I didn't like the way he rode that horse the other day."
When Baffert was asked if he thought the two could resume their partnership in several months, he said, "I doubt it."
Denied is no longer trained by Baffert. He is scheduled to be transferred to Jeff Mullins. Espinoza is friends with the owners of Denied, who race as Bluefield, Inc.
Espinoza said he was stung by Baffert's criticism of his ride aboard Kafwain in the Louisiana Derby, when he finished second to Peace Rules. Kafwain, a Kentucky Derby prospect, was fifth in the early stages of that race. Baffert said that he wanted Kafwain closer to the front.
"The problem was when he started criticizing me," Espinoza said. "I don't think that's right. They can make a change. I don't have a problem with that. It's the trainer's decision."
Baffert has yet to say who will replace Espinoza on Kafwain in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, but Patrick Valenzuela is a leading candidate.
Azeri gearing up
Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, worked six furlongs in 1:12.20 at San Luis Rey Downs on Monday, continuing her preparation for the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 5.
The Apple Blossom, which Azeri won in 2002, will be her 2003 debut.
The 5-year-old Azeri worked alone on Monday and was ridden by jockey Mike Smith, the first time he had been aboard since her victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Arlington Park last October.
"Mike may not have to go to the gym today," trainer Laura de Seroux said. "She really dragged him around there. I was afraid we'd do too much, but she went perfectly."
De Seroux said Azeri will work one more time this weekend before she ships to Oaklawn Park.
Luvah Girl going for Guineas
Luvah Girl, the winner of the La Habra Stakes on Feb. 28 in her only U.S. start, has been sent back to England for an attempt to win the English 1000 Guineas at Newmarket on May 4. Luvah Girl raced in England as a 2-year-old last year.
Although Luvah Girl had been scheduled to return to England for several weeks, she was sent earlier than expected after plans for a start in a stakes at Keeneland in April were scrapped.
Owned by Gary Barber and the Team Valor syndicate, Luvah Girl was sent to trainer Roger Charlton. Last year, Charlton guided Luvah Girl through a campaign that included two wins in five starts, including the Group 2 Rockfel Stakes over seven furlongs at Newmarket last October.
Trainer Jenine Sahadi had Luvah Girl in her stable over the winter and said the filly is scheduled to return to California later this spring.
Luvah Girl is attempting to become the first horse to travel from the United States and win a Guineas since Fourstars Allstar won the Irish 2000 Guineas in 1991.
- While Tyler Baze, Kent Desormeaux, and Alex Solis are traveling to the Dubai World Cup this week, Jose Valdivia Jr. is traveling to the Far East to ride Echo Eddie in a Group 1 sprint in Japan worth $1.4 million. Valdivia will be gone from Wednesday through Sunday.