11/15/2001 1:00AM

Once brilliant Kona Gold losing his glitter


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Kona Gold never did corner the market on brilliance. But he sure tried.

Speed? He always had it: After four seasons of racing, his median Beyer of about 114 is staggering. Class? By the time he won his first graded stakes, he already had finished in the top three in two Breeders' Cups. Nine of his 12 wins are stakes.

Condition? Trainer Bruce Headley's masterful handling of Kona Gold allowed the gelding to maintain peak form while racing no more than six times in any year. Pace? Kona Gold's relentless style invariably enabled him to be at his rivals' throats turning for home.

That is, until now.

Kona Gold, the track's morning-line favorite in the Grade 1 Frank De Francis Memorial Dash on Saturday at Laurel, is not the same. Kona Gold, California's most beloved sprinter the past four years and one of the all-time bests, has lost a step. Maybe two steps, maybe more.

To recognize and chronicle the decline of a champion is nothing to crow about. Kona Gold will remain a sentimental favorite long after he is finished racing. However, as long as parimutuel wagering is offered, it is a handicapper's cold-hearted responsibility to identify situations in which a low-odds runner is badly compromised. It can happen a number of ways.

There are no outside factors that make Kona Gold vulnerable Saturday. His disadvantage has little to do with track condition, pace scenario, weight, post, distance, or bias. Rather, it goes right to the heart of the most basic handicapping fundamental - current form. Barring a sudden and unexpected form reversal, Kona Gold has little chance to win the De Francis.

Superficial analysis based on speed figures might lead to a similar negative conclusion. After all, Kona Gold's recent Beyer figures have rapidly declined - 119 at Del Mar, 115 at Santa Anita, 108 at Belmont. Beyond speed figures, which measure a horse's performance for the entire race, Kona Gold's declining form is plainly revealed by analyzing the pattern of his declining pace figures. (Pace figures gauge a horse's speed for the first portion of the race. In sprints, that is the first half-mile.)

Pace-figure analysis regularly exposes declining form before it becomes obvious. Using pace figures, Kona Gold's sudden fall in the Breeders' Cup was not unexpected. This is illustrated in Kona Gold's Quirin-style pace and speed figures (produced by pace-handicapping expert Tom Brohamer). Here are Kona Gold's pace and speed figures in his three starts leading to the Breeders' Cup.

Date(Pace-speed figure)

Oct. 6(104-111)

July 22(106-112)

April 1(109-111)

While Kona Gold's speed figures remained constant in the 111 range, his pace figures were in a state of rapid decline. Eventually, his worsening form would be exposed. It happened in the Breeders' Cup, when Kona Gold dropped farther off the pace than in any race in his career. He finished a no-threat seventh, and his pace figure dropped even further.

The collapsing form of Kona Gold, revealed by loss of speed, mirrors the fall of another star - Silver Charm.

Silver Charm was making his 20th start

Jan. 10, 1999, at Santa Anita, and his imminent form decline was exposed even in victory. Silver Charm won the race by rallying from eight lengths off the pace, but he had never been positioned that far behind. It was a sign of things to come. Silver Charm lost his next four starts at low odds, and was retired. When a speed horse loses his speed, he becomes just a horse.

In the case of Kona Gold, there is no tangible evidence he has regained his speed. He did blaze through a pair of blistering three-furlong blowouts Nov. 6 and Nov. 12 at Santa Anita, but performance in competition speaks far louder than a fast morning workout.

Kona Gold could prove doubters wrong. It would be quite a surprising resurrection, and likely earn Kona Gold his second straight Eclipse as champion sprinter.

However, Kona Gold will have his hands full trying to catch the 3-year-old filly Xtra Heat. Unproven against males until her runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, Xtra Heat should be long gone in the De Francis, if able to hold off the late challenge of potential upsetter Early Flyer.

In January, California 3-year-old sprinters produced a series of dazzling performances that indicated this was an extraordinary crop. Lasersport, D'wildcat, and Crafty C.T. fell by the wayside, but when Squirtle Squirt won the Breeders' Cup over 3-year-old filly Xtra Heat, he revalidated the strength of the division.

Now arrives classy comebacker Early Flyer. How good is he? Early Flyer was good enough to upset previously unbeaten Lasersport in February, and outfinish Squirtle Squirt in May. Early Flyer has worked sensationally for his return, and if anyone catches Xtra Heat, it might be another 3-year-old - Early Flyer - from an exceptional crop of sprinters.

Early Flyer is no Kona Gold. Xtra Heat is no Kona Gold.

The issue is Kona Gold. Is he still Kona Gold?