`Kona's' Headley making dash at Eclipse

7-year-old's trainer pins top-sprinter hopes on win

Horse Racing

November 16, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Bruce Headley has trained horses for 42 years. He has never run one in Maryland.

That will change tomorrow when Headley, a 67-year-old horseman from California, saddles Kona Gold for the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park. Headley not only seldom races outside California, but he also never overtaxes Kona Gold, star of his stable and champion sprinter of 2000.

So why has Headley done something so out of character and entered Kona Gold in the De Francis Dash?

"He's feeling so good," Headley said of his 7-year-old sprinter. "He came out of the race better than he went into it."

The "race" was the Breeders' Cup Sprint three weeks ago at Belmont Park. Kona Gold, the favorite, finished seventh. After flying Kona Gold from California to New York for the Breeders' Cup, Headley flew the muscular gelding back to Santa Anita Park, worked him twice and then flew him back across country for the Dash.

On the plane with Kona Gold was Caller One, who is trained by Headley's friend, Jim Chapman. After listening to Headley's explanation of Kona Gold's "feeling so good," Chapman smiled and said:

"If you asked Bruce a year ago if he was going to be at Laurel next November, he'd have looked at you like you were crazy. He's here for one reason. It's to win an Eclipse Award."

Squirtle Squirt, winner of the Breeders' Cup Sprint, is the leading candidate for the Eclipse statuette as the outstanding sprinter in North America. By winning the De Francis Dash, Kona Gold might be able to wrestle the award away from Squirtle Squirt.

Kona Gold is the 3-2 favorite in the Dash's morning line. The 3-year-old filly Xtra Heat, 2-1 on the program, would have an even better chance of winning the Eclipse if she captures the Dash.

Stabled at Laurel, Xtra Heat ran a phenomenal race in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and finished second, a half-length behind Squirtle Squirt. A win in the Dash against males would increase her chances of also winning the Eclipse as top 3-year-old filly.

Even though Kona Gold finished 3 1/2 lengths behind Xtra Heat in the Sprint, Headley said he believes Kona Gold at his best can run down the filly in the stretch. The question for Headley - and for bettors - is: What happened to Kona Gold in the Breeders' Cup?

It was the fourth time the son of Java Gold had run in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. In 1998, Kona Gold finished third. In 1999, he finished second. In 2000, he won. This year, he broke alertly, but then backpedaled to 13th in the 14-horse field. He surged in the stretch and finished seventh, four lengths behind Squirtle Squirt.

"Everybody has an opinion about what happened," Headley said. "It was the deep track. He's getting old. I myself think I didn't train him right."

Headley said he trained Kona Gold for a late charge in a field of speedsters when he should have trained him for a quicker break from the gate. After watching Xtra Heat explode into the lead and then hold on gamely in the stretch, Headley re-evaluated his training.

He decided to drill more speed into Kona Gold. Back home at Santa Anita, he sent Kona Gold on two blistering three-furlong breezes. In between workouts, Headley, who gallops his best horses, felt the powerhouse beneath him about to explode.

"I've had to hang on," Headley said.

He said he doesn't believe that Kona Gold has suddenly gotten too old. Even though the gelding is 7, he has raced only 22 times, and he didn't commence his career until he was 4. He underwent surgery at 3 for removal of a bone chip in his knee, and the patient Headley gave him an entire year to recover.

Since then, he has managed the sprinter with tact. He has scheduled races sparingly, with the Breeders' Cup Sprint as the goal. And he has kept Kona Gold close to home. Except for the four Breeders' Cups, "Kona" has not raced outside California - until now.

Said Headley: "This is a $300,000 race. It's the last Grade I of the year. And next year, he'll be 8. If he's losing a step, as some people say, I'd better get this one in before he loses two."

Headley smiled, as if he knew something others didn't. His friend, Chapman, laughed.

"If Kona wasn't 110 percent, Bruce wouldn't be here," Chapman said. "He's here for a reason [the Eclipse Award].

"For him to run second, that doesn't do him any good. Kona can do it if he runs his race. He's tougher than anybody."

De Francis Dash What: Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash

Where: Laurel Park

When: Tomorrow

Purse: $300,000

Distance: Six furlongs

Post time: 4:06 p.m.

Status: One of three Grade I stakes in Maryland

At stake: Eclipse Award as North America's top sprinter

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