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.