07/29/2003 11:00PM

A pair of real crowd-pleasers

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DEL MAR, Calif. - It's a pretty tough week when you lose both Bob Hope and Kona Gold.

Hope was around for a hundred years, literally. In the case of Kona Gold, it has only seemed that way. Few horses have occupied such a broad and satisfying swath of racing history, while maintaining such a high set of expectations.

From his first race on May 31, 1998 - the old-fashioned Memorial Day - to his final bow last Saturday in the Bing Crosby Handicap, Kona Gold was a source of constant entertainment. Even at the age of 9, he remained one of the rocks upon which the sport could rely. And even though he lost the last three races of his career, he was never embarrassed.

Late Wednesday morning, four days after the Crosby, Bruce Headley and Juan Soto were lingering near Kona Gold's stall 33 on the west side of the barn, where the ocean breeze ruffled the leaves of the tall eucalyptus lining the stable road. As trainer and groom, Headley and Soto had a right to be melancholy.

"Hey Juan, what about that?" Headley said. "Life without Kona Gold."

"Sad," Soto replied. "Very sad."

Kona Gold paid them very little mind. He was focused on something in the distance, ears on alert and eyes scanning the horizon. Was it music from a neighbor's barn? Birds on the wing? Heavy machinery on the highway?

"Airplanes," Soto said. "Every time an airplane goes by, he's looking at it."

Kona Gold will have all the time in the world now to contemplate the sky. Once Del Mar ends, with a special tribute to Kona Gold in the works, he will spend the early part of his retirement at Headley's small farm near Santa Anita Park. After that, options will be considered. One thing is for sure, Kona Gold will always have a proper home. Visitors welcome.

"He does love attention," said Aase Headley, the trainer's wife. "He once stopped and stared at a woman carrying a small purse. I'm sure he thought it was a camera."

Andrew Molasky owns Kona Gold with the Headleys, along with his father, Irwin Molasky. He readily endorsed the decision to retire their horse after the Crosby, in spite of the fact that Kona Gold got the six furlongs in a respectable 1:08 and change while beaten about five lengths by victorious Beau's Town.

"He set very high standards for himself," Molasky said. "And even though he might be competitive at a lesser level, it would not be the same. Better he should be remembered as going out with his head held high."

Better yet, the old boy is sound and healthy. One of the reasons he was still in the game at age 9 is because he did not make his first start until May of his 4-year-old season. And that was because he had a chip in his knee at age 3.

"He was ready to run when we found it," Headley said. "And ready to win, too. A lot of guys would have injected the knee and gone on with him, won the race, and then who knows how long he'd have lasted. But we stopped on him, took out the flake and gave him the time he needed."

Headley's patience, coupled with the understanding of the Molaskys, kept Kona Gold going longer than any top-class sprinter in recent American racing. He appeared in an unprecedented five runnings of the Breeders' Cup Sprint. He went head to head against the likes of Reraise, Artax, Big Jag, Grand Slam, Freespool, Regal Thunder, Swept Overboard, Honest Lady, and that other old battler, Bet on Sunshine, running his race nearly every time.

In fact, during a string of 21 starts, beginning with his debut and running to the end of 2001, Kona Gold finished first or second 19 times. He was third once, but give him a break. That was his first appearance in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Kona Gold's victory in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs over Honest Lady remains his most significant, especially after setting the Breeders' Cup record for the six furlongs. A few weeks later, Headley appeared wearing a cap emblazoned with "1:07.77," just so nobody would forget, while jockey Alex Solis changed his California license plates to "Kona107."

Kona Gold's bare-knuckle brawls with massive Big Jag were legendary. Between January of 1999 and January of 2000 they met five times and won twice each. Only the '99 Breeders' Cup Sprint escaped them, when Artax beat Kona Gold by a half-length, with Big Jag lapped on in third.

But it was the 2001 running of the Bing Crosby Handicap that lingers sweetest of all. Kona Gold was 7 by then and had every right to show his age. His opposition was led by Caller One, a speedball in top form who had traveled halfway around the world to win the 2001 Dubai Golden Shaheen.

When Kona Gold ran down Caller One to win by three-quarters of a length that day, the Del Mar fans rocked the house. Solis responded by taking Kona Gold halfway up the stretch to let Kona take a bow. Kona obliged with a toss of his head.

"Did you see that? Did you hear them?" said Headley, a man who is hard to impress. "I can't remember anything like that. I've still got goose bumps."

They will last for awhile. And to all who kept Kona Gold going - thanks for the memories.