10/05/2005 11:00PM

Two stakes, two thrillers at wire

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Two well-timed rides resulted in desperate wins in both the Jack and Sadie Diamond futurities at Hastings last weekend.

In the Jack Diamond Futurity, for colts and geldings, Jorge Espitia brought longshot Sungold Wonder ($72.90) from well back to beat a game Lukin Awesome by a head. On Saturday in the Sadie Diamond, the 1-2 favorite, No Ka Oi, held on to win by a nose over Starlite Strike.

The Jack Diamond Futurity was one of the most exciting races of the meet. Heading into the stretch, most of the horses in the race had a realistic chance of winning, and less than two lengths separated the first seven horses at the wire.

Sungold Wonder, trained by Barbara Heads, trailed Lukin Awesome by more than 12 lengths after the first quarter-mile, but he put in a powerful late run while going seven wide in the stretch and got up just in time.

"He got bumped a little coming out of the gate, and he didn't like the mud hitting him in the face," said Espitia. "But once he got into it, he really got rolling."

For Espitia, it was his second stakes win since losing his bug Aug. 30, and he appears to be well on his way to having a successful career as a journeyman. He is in sixth place in the jockey standings at Hastings.

For both Espitia and Heads, it was the biggest wins in their careers. If it wasn't for a shrewd move by Heads last spring, Sungold Wonder wouldn't have been eligible for the race.

Sungold Wonder was part of a package of horses that Russell and Lois Bennett purchased from the estate of the late Kim Hart, for whom Heads was the trainer. When the March 24 payment for the Futurity was due, Heads had a hard time explaining to the members of the estate that the horses they were trying to sell would be more valuable if they were eligible to races like the Futurity.

"They didn't quite understand what I was talking about, so I made the payment myself," said Heads. "I was very lucky that R.J. bought the whole package of horses."

At $72,000, Sungold Wonder was the sale-topper at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society yearling sale last year.

"He's a very classy colt," said Heads. "It took a while for him to come around because he's been going through growth stages."

Heads was using the Futurity as a prep for the $75,000 Ascot Graduation, a 1 1/16-mile race on Oct. 23. Sungold Wonder is a full brother to B.C. Derby winner Cruising Kat, and Heads figures he'll be a much better horse when he stretches out.

"It's not that I didn't think he was good enough," she said of winning the Futurity, "but I thought he might need a little more seasoning. It was a very pleasant surprise."

Heads said Sungold Wonder came out of the race in excellent shape and will make his next start in the Ascot Graduation.

Lukin Awesome done for the year

Second-place finisher Lukin Awesome was unlucky to lose, and there's a good chance that if he had seen Sungold Wonder, who was in the middle of the track, he would have won.

"He's a hard horse to keep going," said his rider, Richard Hamel. "I don't think he saw the horse on the outside, otherwise he might have fought back."

According to his trainer, Terry Clyde, Lukin Awesome also came out of the Futurity in good shape, but he's through for the year.

"He's starting to act up a bit, so he might be trying to tell us something," she said. "He misbehaved in the paddock and he almost knocked Richard out when he reared in the gate."

Lukin Awesome won the B.C. Cup Nursery and the New Westminster Stakes. He has earned $97,899 for his owners and breeders, Leo and Norma Shaw.

Fantasy next for No Ka Oi

When No Ka Oi, with Frank Fuentes aboard, opened up a two-length lead at the top of the stretch in the Sadie Diamond Futurity, it looked like she was going to run away and hide. However, Starlite Strike made a strong move in the stretch and turned what looked like a romp into an exciting finish.

"I wasn't sure if we had won or not," said Fuentes. "When I looked back and saw we were clear, I thought we were going to win for fun. But with $100,000 on the line, I never quit riding, and I was surprised the other horse got that close."

No Ka Oi is trained by Robert Gilker and is owned by his parents, Walter and Gerry Gilker.

"It was their first stakes win in 35 years," said the trainer.

Gilker said No Ka Oi would be pointed to the $75,000 Fantasy Stakes on Oct. 22.

* Hamel, who rode Starlite Strike, is having one of his knees operated on and will miss the rest of the year.