Updated on 09/15/2011 12:40PM

Old man with a huge heart


DEL MAR, Calif. - Juan Soto, a tall man they call "Juanito," reached one arm gracefully across Kona Gold's neck and gave the old horse a hug. Kona Gold submitted to the display of affection as if it had been offered a thousand times before, and it probably had. After all, he was 7 years old, and Soto has been in his stall for most of those years.

On this particular day, though, in the peace and quiet of the Del Mar test barn, there was something reassuring about Soto's gesture. Kona Gold had just been asked for every ounce of his strength in order to beat Caller One by three-quarters of a length in the $200,000 Bing Crosby Handicap, and now it was over. The old man could rest, at least for a little while, until he was needed again.

The game does need Kona Gold, needs him desperately. And if you doubt that, you were nowhere near Del Mar on Sunday afternoon when Alex Solis brought Kona Gold back to the cheering crowd, then took him 50 yards up the stretch so that the fans on the grandstand apron could pay tribute to their hero. Kona Gold responded with an impatient shake of his head, as if to say, "What did you expect?"

"Did you see that? Did you hear them?" Bruce Headley, keeper of the treasure, was still weak-kneed with pride a half hour after the race. "I can't remember anything like that. I've still got goosebumps."

Headley, who both trains and owns part of Kona Gold, goes back a long way in California racing, back to the late 1940's, when he and a lad named Willie Lee Shoemaker were among a bunch of kids just learning the ropes at the old Suzy Q Ranch east of L.A.

Headley has seen a lot of West Coast crowd-pleasers come and go. Swaps, Cougar, John Henry, Best Pal - they all were able to reach outside the rails and into the hearts of the people in the stands. Kona Gold is treading these days in the spiritual footsteps of Native Diver, who played to grateful California crowds through the mid-1960's.

In fact, the 2001 running of the Crosby summoned memories of a Native Diver moment from 1965, when the younger Viking Spirit tried to knock the king off his throne in the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park. For most of the seven furlongs they raced together - the black Diver and his chestnut challenger - until they hit the line, spent to the depths, just a neck apart in world record time. The neck belonged to Native Diver.

The Crosby had all the ingredients for the same brand of great theater featuring the two best sprinters in the land. The 4-year-old Caller One entered the ring for trainer Jim Chapman aglow with robust health, his huge hindquarters flexing beneath skin stretched tight. Kona Gold, longer than his opponent and a duller shade of bay, traipsed around the paddock with Soto at his side, calm in the face of another day at the office.

As expected, Caller One led from the start, and from the quarter pole to the eighth pole the younger horse threw an 11.64-second furlong at Kona Gold that should have broken his spirit. Most horses would have cracked under the pressure of the chase.

"I thought the old man was beaten," said a Caller One backer, staring at his losing tickets. "Then his heart kicked in."

In the shadow of the wire, when the outcome was obvious, Solis rose in the saddle and shouted in jubilation, then switched hands and pumped his stick in the direction of Caller One and Corey Nakatani. A gentleman to the core, Solis was acting way out of character. But then, horses like Kona Gold tend to shake loose our deepest emotions. Under the circumstances, Solis was not required to apologize. His explanation was sufficient: "I got excited."

He was not alone. After the race Kona Gold found himself in the middle of a mosh pit winner's circle, seemingly populated by everyone who ever knew owners Irwin Molasky, his son Andrew, and their partner, Michael Singh. Kona Gold remained serene, and dry as a bone.

"He doesn't sweat," Headley explained. "He's a non-sweater. Can you imagine the system of capillaries and internal circulation he must have to compensate for that, as hard as he runs?"

No question, Kona Gold is a remarkable beast. And so is Caller One. Since they are both geldings, this is their life. If we are lucky, they will meet again and again, at the very least in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Belmont Park in October. To this point the advantage is 2-0 Kona Gold, but as the town sheriff said when comparing the speed of two gunfighters, "You'd hate to live on the difference."

"That horse is unbelievable," Chapman said later, in appreciation of Kona Gold. "Watching him in the spit box after the race, it was like he didn't do anything. And his legs look like the legs of a 2-year-old. I've got to get three or four more years out of my horse before I can even begin to match Headley."

Lucky us. We get to watch them try.