Champion sprinter Kona Gold celebrated turning 9 Wednesday by winning the $100,000 El Conejo Handicap (gr. III) by a neck over Radiata at Santa Anita Wednesday.
Jockey Alex Solis saved ground along the rail with the 6-5 favorite Kona Gold, who broke in mid-pack from the inside post. When front-running Radiata, with Patrick Valenzuela aboard, fanned out from the inside in upper stretch, Solis was waiting. He guided the Java Gold gelding through the rail opening and won the battle to the wire with right-handed whipping. Radiata held off No Armistice, who raced close to the pace throughout, by less than a length for second place.
Winning time for the 5 1/2-furlong El Conejo was 1:02.63. Kona Gold, the 123-pound top weight, became the fifth horse in track history to win a stakes at age 9.
Bruce Headley trains and co-owns Kona Gold along with Irwin and Andrew Molasky. It was victory 14 in the storied career of Kona Gold, the 2000 Eclipse winner for sprinters after winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint that year. He has career earnings of more than $2.25 million.
"He's an incredible horse," said Solis, who was returning to action after missing two days due to soreness sustained in a fall Saturday. "The reason for that is (Headley). He takes care of the horse like he's one of his kids."
"When you're down on the rail going 5 1/2 furlongs, you're always concerned," he said of the race. "I was very lucky. I got through the whole way, and best of all, at nine years old, he proved why he's a champion. He came down on the rail like a 2-year-old, like he always does. He showed a lot of class and was very game."
Radiata might have won had he not gotten such a strong pace challenge from Our Magistrate, Valenzuela believes.
"(Our Magistrate) probably cost us the race around the turn, pushing us the whole way," said Valenzuela. "Our horse ran a very game race and ended up second. He got cooked the first part of the race and still went on and tried hard."
The race was Kona Gold's first since his fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) Oct. 26. The victory was the lightly-raced bay's second win since July 22, 2001. He had lost five of six races since that victory, which came in the Bing Crosby Handicap (gr. II). He also won the Los Angeles Handicap (gr. III) at Hollywood June 2.
"That's his 27th race so he hasn't been raced too many times," said Headley. "He's Kona Gold, one of a kind. We'll try for the Palos Verdes (Jan. 26) next. The way he ran on the inside shows he'll run anywhere. He's got the heart of a champion and he still loves running."
Kona Gold was bred in Kentucky by Carlos Perez.
The winner paid $4.60, $3.40 and $2.60. Radiata returned $10.40 and $4.60. No Armistice, with David Flores riding, had a $4 show price. The $2 exacta was $43.20.