07/20/2001 12:00AM

Uneasy lies the crown on Kona Gold


PHOENIX - It's what we've all been waiting for. Sunday's Grade 2 six-furlong Bing Crosby should give us a Kona Gold-Caller One rematch.

Back in November, Kona Gold sat not far off Caller One's sizzling pace in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, then blew his doors off on the way to a championship.

But think of Caller One as the wiry teenager who went away to summer camp, and came back filled out. He has been nothing short of devastating this year, and obviously is a better horse than the one Kona Gold beat at Churchill Downs last November.

Is Kona Gold also a better horse this year, at age 8? That's unlikely. But Kona Gold doesn't have to improve; he simply has to maintain. The crown is still his, although it may rest somewhat uneasy in light of a workmanlike but less-than-brilliant winter/spring campaign.

Any thoughts that Kona Gold has lost it should have been dispelled by that sizzling 56-second work a few weeks ago. Odds are, Kona Gold is as good now as last year.

But will it be enough? Caller One can flat fly early, and his brilliant Los Angeles Handicap win at Hollywood a few weeks back showed a new dimension: patience. As a 3-year-old he was somewhat speed-crazy. He is still just as fast, but now it seems controlled.

When Freespool, likely the quickest horse in the country for three furlongs, outran him early in the Los Angeles, Caller One seemed undisturbed. He bounded along as though he was on an easy lead himself. His normal gallop swallowed up Freespool. There are only a handful of sprinters in the world who can beat Freespool, but maybe only Kona Gold could have done it with similar disdain.

Inevitably, as in a pride of lions, the patriarch must be replaced. Is it time now for Kona Gold to get pushed out by a younger, more robust rival? Or can Kona Gold fend off one more challenge?

Caller One is no doubt quicker early, but few sprinters ever have been able to accelerate from the three-furlong marker to the five-furlong marker like Kona Gold. His devastating move by Caller One in the Sprint also put him out of reach of the big closers, Honest Lady and Bet on Sunshine. His tactical speed, and rider Alex Solis's knowledge that he can't let Caller One get away, figure to have him in position just off Caller One's hip. Then it's a matter of who's better once they hit the quarter pole.

I lean to Kona Gold. It's like a championship fight: The champ is the champ until beaten, and the challenger has to take it away.

Duel at Delaware

Sunday's Grade 3 Delaware Handicap is more of a puzzle.

Lazy Slusan may well be the best mare in the country. She packs a wallop in the lane and has turned into a beast out West for John Dolan. Sure she lost the Vanity at Hollywood to the tough Gourmet Girl last time, but remember, Gourmet Girl got to go an easy 1:12 for the first six furlongs. You can't give Grade 1 horses that kind of luxury.

The other horse of interest is Jostle. In my opinion, she got robbed in the voting for 2000 3-year-old filly honor. For some reason, voters felt better about Surfside's win over weak males in the Clark than they did about Jostle's super spring and summer, which included wins in the Black-Eyed Susan, Coaching Club Oaks, Alabama, and Cotillion. Two of those races, the Oaks and the Alabama, are distance events, at 1 1/2 miles and 1 1/4 miles, respectively. She handled the distance with aplomb.

It took Jostle a while to get back in gear this year, but of late she has looked very much back on her game. She doesn't figure far off the pace, which can allow her to get first run on Lazy Slusan. The feeling here is that Lazy Slusan can still run her down, and you have the makings of a decent exacta box.