A rivalry will resume on Super Bowl Sunday, but it has nothing to do with football teams.
For the third consecutive year Kona Gold, a 7-year-old gelding, and Big Jag, an 8-year-old gelding, will race in the $200,000 Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita.
So far, the score stands at a victory apiece. In 1999, Big Jag was a head better than Kona Gold, the 3-10 favorite, in a race voted the best of Santa Anita's winter-spring meet.
Nearly 12 months ago, Kona Gold turned the tables, beating Big Jag by two lengths. It was the first of five victories--in six starts--in 2000 for the son of Java Gold, who culminated the year with a win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. Kona Gold, owned by a partnership that includes Irwin and Andrea Molasky and trainer Bruce Headley, will be named the Eclipse award winner as the champion sprinter Tuesday in New Orleans.
While Kona Gold went on to four more graded stakes last year after the Palos Verdes, Big Jag won only once in four starts.
However, his lone victory was a big one. He went to Dubai and easily captured the $1-million Dubai Golden Shaheen, improving his record for owner-breeder Julius Zolezzi and trainer Tim Pinfield to 13 victories in 26 starts.
What followed were three defeats at three different tracks. He finished fourth in the Metropolitan Handicap at a flat mile at Belmont Park, was seventh as the 7-5 choice in Hollywood Park's Triple Bend Handicap, then was seventh again--beaten by less than four lengths--in a field of 14 in the Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin last month.
The English-born Pinfield, a former steeplechase rider who worked as an assistant trainer to Darrell Vienna before going on his own in 1997, said his pride and joy did have some excuses for those performances.
"We tried him a mile in New York and he didn't get the trip," Pinfield said. "In the race at Hollywood Park, he didn't care for the surface and he tore himself up behind. He broke one way and the ground went another at the start.
"About a week before the race in Hong Kong, it poured rain one day and he had a work there that was about as good a work as he's ever had. After that, it didn't rain again and by the day of the race, the course was hard. It was more than firm and he didn't get hold of it. We weren't disappointed in his race, and he came out of it great."
A winner of five of 10 during a rugged campaign in 1999, Big Jag looks to be coming up to the Palos Verdes in good order. However, he is another year older and there is no guarantee he will return to his best form.
"Everything with him is positive right now," said Pinfield, who is assisted by wife Debbie, who regularly serves as Big Jag's exercise rider. "His health is good, his attitude and works are good and he's sound.
"We're delighted with how well he is doing. He may have to prove himself to the racing public again, but the horse has nothing to prove to Debbie or myself. I hope he goes out and runs a good race on Sunday. I know he has the fire in his belly."
The win in the 1999 Palos Verdes was the first of two for Big Jag over Kona Gold that winter at Santa Anita. After Kona Gold won the El Conejo on Jan. 3, Big Jag followed his Palos Verdes victory with a half-length score in the seven-furlong San Carlos Handicap. He is the only horse to have beaten the reigning Breeders' Cup Sprint champion more than once.
Those who saw the Palos Verdes two years ago won't soon forget the Grade II race.
Breaking from the rail, Kona Gold--ridden by Alex Solis--established a length lead over Swiss Yodeler after a 21 2/5 opening quarter--the first of three fast splits.
Kona Gold was still a length in front after running a half-mile in 43 3/5 seconds and extended his lead to 1 1/2 lengths after five furlongs in 55 4/5, but Big Jag was determined while rallying on the outside. Under urging by jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., he prevailed in a photo in 1:08 for the six furlongs. Swiss Yodeler, who faded to third, was beaten by eight lengths.
"I watched, but I didn't watch," said Pinfield, remembering the stretch run. "I was looking through my fingertips and Debbie ran the final furlong with the horse.
"I don't know if I can explain what that race meant. It meant so much to Debbie and I, and it was a great morale boost for everybody at the barn. We were ecstatic. Kona Gold is such a wonderful horse, a warrior and nothing he has done the last couple of years has surprised me."
Depending on what happens Sunday, another trip to Dubai is possible for Big Jag, who has earned $1,767,479, putting him 10th on the all-time list among California-breds. Or the gelding might stay at Santa Anita, where he has five wins and four seconds in 11 races. After the Palos Verdes, there is the San Carlos on March 4 and the Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap on April 1.
What is known for sure is that all concerned will do what is right for Big Jag.