A gibbous moon stares down into the southern California darkness, watching the backstretch slowly begin to stir. A webbing unhooked here, a rake dragged across a shedrow there. An occasional light is flicked on in a stall, revealing the outline of a pacing occupant. And through this morning stillness, heading in for another day at work, walks Kona Gold. It is just 4:40 a.m.
As the lights of the Santa Anita grandstand cast a faint glow on surroundings, the big caballo presently makes his way around the training track, his iron legs rhythmically chopping into the virgin dirt, the beat matching the breaths steaming from his nostrils. It is quiet. He is alone. And he is slowly ticking away...
"That's why I'm getting him out now," says the man in the saddle, none other than trainer Bruce Headley. "I don't want to get him out later when he sees a lot of horses because he'll challenge everybody. I want him out here where he's goin' along at his own pace. This is for his safe-keeping."
And this is what it takes to make a champion. These crack-of-dawn gallops aboard Kona Gold have given Headley invaluable insight into the heart and soul of his champion. As both trainer and co-owner, he is fiercely protective of Kona Gold's health as well as his reputation, and his handling of the gelding has been nothing less than superlative. It is Headley's faith, both in a single animal's ability and the methods of master trainers, that keeps the 7-year-old marching along. It is his discretion that has allowed the son of Java Gold, once a $35,000 yearling, to push past the $2-million mark in earnings.
And it is Headley's unflinching devotion that has made Kona Gold, furlong for furlong, the best racehorse in America.
His latest conquest--No. 7 in his current streak--came in the $196,000 Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) on July 22. This, however, was no ordinary six furlongs. It was simply the most anticipated race of the year, at last bringing together Kona Gold and Caller One.
But this wouldn't be the same Caller One that ran out of steam in last fall's Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I). A trip to Dubai, where Caller One galloped in the $2-million Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-III), energized the son of Phone Trick, according to trainer Jim Chapman, and a facile win in Hollywood's Los Angeles Handicap (gr. III) in May left him geared up for a title shot.
"He's better and stronger now than he's ever been," Chapman said the day before the Bing Crosby. "He's a man now, and he was a boy back then. In my mind, the only way he'll get beat tomorrow is if Kona Gold is just a flat better racehorse than him. That's what everybody's waiting to see."
The fans sided with experience, giving the nod to Kona Gold at 9-10. Caller One, though, wasn't far behind at 3-2. Ceeband and Freespool were both pulled earlier on, leaving Swept Overboard and Hollycombe as the only brave souls to join the clash. Most, however, had it pegged as a showdown, hoping the big two would lock up at the quarter pole to find out who's boss.
It couldn't have been scripted any finer. Alex Solis put Kona Gold into the race early, but as expected, Caller One zipped clear under Corey Nakatani, opening up by five with a :22.02 first quarter. By the time Caller One hit the half in :44.27, though, Kona Gold and Swept Overboard had already closed the gap.
And then Kona Gold snarled and got down to business. With just a furlong to run, Caller One's lead was still 1 1/2 lengths. Solis stayed after Kona Gold right-handed until he sensed Caller One start to shorten up, then as Kona Gold finally took over, he shot a quick look back at the enterprising Swept Overboard. Neither could match Kona Gold's momentum. At the end, Kona Gold was on top, three-quarters of a length better than Caller One in 1:08.22. Swept Overboard was just a half-length back in third.
It was the battle everyone had wanted. It became a race no one will forget. And it let loose a tidal wave of emotion. Kona Gold hadn't even hit the finish before Solis was pumping his fist in excitement, which he followed with a sideways glare back at Caller One. Moments later, he parked Kona Gold in midstretch and pointed him right to the sun-kissed crowd, giving them a clear glimpse of a legend in the making. They responded with an ovation fit for a king.
There may be nothing now that Kona Gold can't handle. Put something out there and he just goes after it. The horse refuses to lose. He has still never been defeated at Del Mar. In fact, Kona Gold hasn't been defeated in over a year, period.
"He's just holding his form," Headley said. "He's just a professional. He's like a guy who knows his trade."
Co-owned by Irwin and Andrew Molasky and G. Michael Singh's Hi-Tech Stable, Kona Gold will now tune up for a repeat in the Sprint on World Thoroughbred Championships Day. Look for him in the Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. I) on Oct. 6 at Santa Anita.
And don't be surprised if he keeps coming and coming again. Headley has made a career out of turning working-class horses into heroes, and he plans on keeping Kona Gold around for a while.
" 'Cause Bet On Sunshine's nine," he pointed out. "He won the big stakes the other day, so if I can keep taking care of this horse, if no bad mishap comes, I don't see why I can't do it either."
We should be so lucky. UNDERSTANDING JANET
Jed Cohen's Janet erased the memory of her shaky start at Del Mar last summer with a $32.80 upset of Tranquility Lake in the $400,000 Ramona Handicap (gr. IT) on July 21.
The daughter of Emperor Jones arrived in California last summer with the reputation of being a bit troublesome. When she finally made it to the races, it was a complete disaster. Trainer Darrell Vienna and his crew then set forth on a mission to figure Janet out. Combining constant gate work, paddock schooling, and old-fashioned TLC, they turned Janet into a winner in a matter of weeks.
Less than a year later, they've turned her into a grade-I winner. Vienna, however, maintains that Janet still has her way around the barn.
"I don't think that she's changed," Vienna said. "I think that we've changed to accommodate the way she behaves and have learned to mitigate some of her behavior by our behavior."
In the nine-furlong Ramona, David Flores and Janet pounced on favored Tranquility Lake and Minor Details in midstretch, then managed to hold on by a desperate half-length. Tranquility Lake, carrying 123 pounds to Janet's 116, just got her nose in front of Minor Details, Beautiful Noise, and High Walden. The final time was 1:48.20.