Updated: Tuesday, June 4, 2002 2:37 PM
Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2002 2:37 PM
No predictions here about the outcome of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and War Emblem's bid to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. However, relying on some "inside information," it's easy to predict that June 8, 2002, will be one of the biggest days in the history of Belmont Park--if not the biggest.
"I've never seen anything like it," Glen Mathes, the longtime director of media relations for the New York Racing Association, said about the increased media interest for this year's Belmont.
"Newspapers that have never covered the race are sending people for the first time," Mathes continued. "Papers that might normally send one racing writer are sending additional columnists and feature writers."
Any number of reasons could be cited: higher television ratings for the first two legs of the Triple Crown than in recent years; better coverage in the New York market, acknowledged as the nation's media capital; a high-profile storyline with trainer Bob Baffert trying for the third time to win the Triple Crown; or perhaps, as Mathes suggests, a resurgence for the sport.
Go, baby, go. Good as Gold
Off the Triple Crown trail, when Kona Gold failed to threaten in last year's Penske Auto Center Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), I remembered thinking, "Oh well, he's had a nice run." The mistaken assumption was that the career of the then-7-year-old sprint champion was over.
That couldn't have been further from the truth.
Under trainer and co-owner Bruce Headley's guidance, the gelded son of Java Gold came back June 2 with a stirring victory in the Los Angeles Handicap (gr. III) at Hollywood Park at the ripe old age of eight. The ease of his victory, accomplished in 1:08.72 for the six furlongs and under top weight of 125 pounds, suggests that the old boy hasn't lost more than a step or two--if that--and will be a force to be reckoned with in any and all appearances he makes on the racetrack this year.
Headley will pick his spots carefully for Kona Gold and hope racing secretaries don't force him to make alternative plans by piling too much weight on the sprint star. He was assigned 125 for the L.A. 'Cap, the same weight he carried when finishing fourth in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash (gr. I) last November. The De Francis was Kona Gold's third consecutive loss and earned him a six-month vacation. The first of those losses came when the gelding was saddled with a career-high 127 pounds in the Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. I) in October.
His trainer has his sights set on Oct. 26 at Arlington Park, where Kona Gold would become the first horse to compete in five consecutive Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. Third in his first try in 1998, Kona Gold finished second in 1999, then captured the Sprint in 2000, the year he was voted an Eclipse Award as North America's outstanding sprinter. He'll only make a few stops en route to this year's Breeders' Cup, but it should be a fun ride.
One of his biggest divisional rivals, the 4-year-old filly Xtra Heat, already has more career starts than Kona Gold despite being half his age. The daughter of Dixieland Heat is a throwback, the kind of horse who can take whatever her connections throw at her. Xtra Heat raced nine times at two, winning all but once, then captured nine of 13 starts last year as a 3-year-old. She's already 3-for-4 in 2002, including a wire-to-wire victory under 128 pounds in the Barbara Fritchie Handicap (gr. II) at Laurel in February.
War Emblem's Triple Crown bid may be the headline story this week, but horses like Kona Gold, Xtra Heat, and many others show the depth of quality that racing enjoys throughout the year.
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