03/18/2003 1:00AM

Speedy Kona Breeze pick in turf feature


ALBANY, Calif. - For the first time in more than a year, Golden Gate Fields racing secretary Greg Brent was forced to hold up entries and bring them back a second day.

His perseverance paid off after suspending entries on Sunday when no race had more than five entrants. The Thursday co-feature, a one-mile $40,000 starter allowance race on the turf, has nine entrants and looks to be a wide-open race.

Brent, who declined to discuss why Thursday's card was tough to fill, battled the weather last week. Heavy rains were predicted, and while rain fell, it was more than predicted. There were forecasts of rain this week, which might have made trainers reluctant to enter on Sunday for races on Thursday.

With Emerald Downs approaching the opening of its season, Brent is losing potential starters to Washington, and a horse population already on the small side is shrinking even further.

Thursday's starter allowance, the day's seventh race, comes after only one turf race was run here last weekend, the Grade 3 Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Although the turf was listed as yielding, riders thought it might actually have benefited from the rain.

"The rain seemed to pack the sand in the course down, and the course seemed to be pretty good," leading rider Russell Baze said.

With only two rail settings available, the course had been a bit uneven - chewed up in spots, particularly from the 4 1/2-furlong sprints.

Thursday's race features the second-, third-, and fourth-place finishers of a 1 1/16-mile, $40,000 starter on the turf on Feb. 27, as well as recent maiden turf winner Westmead Empress and Prenuptial Plans, who was second to her that day.

Kona Breeze appears the one to beat. Trained by Donna Elordi, Kona Breeze was second in the Feb. 27 race after setting a pressured pace. Although she couldn't hold off Fancy Locket, she finished 1 1/4 lengths in front of Ciribiribin Queen and nearly five in front of Caress the Wind.

Though she may get some pace pressure from Lacrystal Classic and recent $12,500 maiden graduate Pia's Courage, Kona Breeze should be the one to catch under Ron Warren Jr., who surpassed 3,000 wins last week and won the Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap aboard Ninebanks.

If Lacrystal Classic or Pia's Courage go for the lead, it might even work to Warren's advantage. Kona Breeze's lone victory came when she sat second early and took over in the stretch.