07/24/2002 11:00PM

A tough test for Kona Gold

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Last year, only three opponents lined up against defending champion Kona Gold in the $200,000 Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap. On Saturday, there is no shortage of rivals attempting to dethrone Kona Gold in his attempt for an unprecedented third consecutive win in the Del Mar sprint.

Kona Gold, the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter of 2000, has only one win in five starts since the 2001 Bing Crosby. The losses have created doubts about his prospects as an 8-year-old.

Trainer and co-owner Bruce Headley has the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Arlington Park in October as a long-term goal and is considering scratching Kona Gold on Saturday to wait for the Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap at Oak Tree in early October.

For now, Kona Gold is an intended starter - and the likely favorite - in the six-furlong Bing Crosby. He is unbeaten in five starts at Del Mar, a minor consolation to Headley, who has spent part of the week fussing over Kona Gold's assignment as the 124-pound highweight.

"They're still keeping him up there," Headley said of the weights.

Kona Gold was sixth as the favorite in the Grade 2 Triple Bend Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park on July 6. He was close to the pace for the first half-mile but was not ridden hard when beaten in the stretch.

"Hopefully, this isn't back too soon," Headley said.

The first three finishers from the Triple Bend - Disturbingthepeace, D'wildcat, and Mellow Fellow - are among the 10 rivals facing Kona Gold in the Bing Crosby. Other top contenders include Freespool, a minor stakes winner here last year; Astonished and Nuclear Debate, stakes winners in turf sprints who have never won on dirt; and Mighty David, who ran the fastest six furlongs at Hollywood Park this summer - 1:08.27.

Disturbingthepeace, Freespool, and Mighty David will contribute to a quick pace, which helps stalkers such as Kona Gold. Disturbingthepeace had an uncontested lead in the Triple Bend and will be seeking his fifth consecutive win.

"He may prefer seven-eighths," trainer Darrell Vienna said.

Last year, Kona Gold caught the front-running Caller One to win the Bing Crosby. With a fast pace expected Saturday, he will be joined by the closers Mellow Fellow and D'wildcat.

Mellow Fellow had a six-race winning streak end in the Triple Bend, his first start since being acquired by Sid and Jenny Craig and trainer Bill Spawr in May.

"There wasn't any speed coming back," Spawr said. "I think he needed that race."

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