Updated on 09/15/2011 1:27PM

What's left in Kona's tank?

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Trainer Bruce Headley gallops Kona Gold at Belmont before his seventh-place in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

WASHINGTON - Over the last four racing seasons, Kona Gold ( ) has seemed indestructible. He never missed an important objective, never ran a bad race. He finished third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 1998, ran second in that race in 1999, and finally won it last year, earning the Eclipse Award as the nation's champion sprinter.

But when he was favored to defend his title at Belmont Park last month, Kona Gold suffered the worst defeat of his career, finishing seventh. Now much of the racing world wonders whether age has finally caught up with him at age 7. Even his trainer, Bruce Headley, isn't sure. So he has shipped his star from California to run in Saturday's $300,000 Frank De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park. There the gelding will either show that the Breeders' Cup was a fluke or that he is finally in the twilight of a great career.

Kona Gold did not begin his career until an age when many horses have ended theirs. After undergoing surgery on a chipped knee when he was 3, he made his belated debut as a 4-year-old in the summer of 1998 at Del Mar and won it sensationally, by 15 lengths. In the second race of his life, he sped six furlongs in 1:08.60. Although Kona Gold didn't have an exceptional pedigree - he had sold for only $35,000 at a yearling auction - he had exceptional natural talent, and Headley began to marvel at the attributes that made him so special.

Kona Gold is an efficient running machine. "He's a big powerful horse and he's blessed with a great oxygen intake," Headley said. "You hardly hear him blow after he works, and he never sweats." Moreover, the trainer observed, Kona Gold possesses the mental makeup of a great athlete: "He's got a lot of courage; he wants to win. He's got a great constitution. He never frets. He's very easy to train; you can work him fast or work him slow."

Headley, 67, doesn't operate one of California's elite stables but he does have a knack for training old campaigners. He won stakes races with the 9-year-old Soft Shoe Sureshot and the 8-year-old Son of a Pistol. For many years he was stabled at Santa Anita near the late Charlie Whittingham, and watched with admiration as that legendary horseman picked objectives and planned for them months in advance.

Headley decided he would do the same for Kona Gold. He recognized that the gelding was a natural sprinter and decided never to experiment with him at longer distances. Instead, Whittingham-style, he would aim each year for the race that counts the most: the Breeders' Cup Sprint. The judiciousness of Headley's management is reflected in Kona Gold's career record: 22 starts, 12 wins, 7 second-place finishes.

Kona Gold ran respectably in the Breeders' Cup at 4, and at 5 delivered a performance that would have won in most years; he lost by a half-length as Artax ran six furlongs in a record 1:07.89. After that, he was virtually flawless. He broke Artax's record by winning the Breeders' Cup in 1:07.77, and from the spring of 2000 to the fall of 2001 he was undefeated, winning seven straight races.

That streak ended in Kona Gold's final prep for this year's Breeders' Cup; he didn't have his customary acceleration and finished second in a fast-run race at Santa Anita. At Belmont he started sluggishly and ran in the back of the pack before rallying ineffectually to finish seventh. He finished only four lengths behind the victorious Squirtle Squirt, so the performance wasn't a total disaster, but this wasn't the Kona Gold that the sport has admired for years.

Headley was perplexed. "Either he didn't like the track or I didn't train him hard enough for the race. I just think he had an off day." The trainer was asked whether it is possible that, at the age of 7, Kona Gold's best days are behind him. "That's another theory," Headley acknowledged.

Headley said Kona Gold is not suffering from any physical problems, and that he has been training with verve. "He came out of the Breeders' Cup better than he went in," the trainer declared.

But even if the gelding is in sharp condition, he is no cinch to win the De Francis Dash, whose field includes the brilliantly fast Xtra Heat and Caller One, the second- and third-place finishers in the Breeders' Cup. To beat this competition, Kona Gold will have to be as good as he has ever been in his remarkable seven years.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post

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