10/02/2003 11:00PM

Got Koko's origins stuff of breeding lore

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The dust still hasn't settled from the result in the Lady's Secret at Santa Anita last Sunday, when Got Koko emphatically denied a 12th consecutive victory to Azeri, the reigning Eclipse champion as older mare and also last year's Horse of the Year. Clearly, Got Koko has added greater interest, speculation, and drama to this year's Breeders' Cup Distaff, which practically had been conceded to Azeri.

Should Got Koko succeed against Azeri in the Breeders' Cup, perhaps some visionary in public relations will arrange a billboard campaign: "Got Koko?"

Even Got Koko's origins make dramatic reading. A 4-year-old daughter of the New York-based stallion Signal Tap and the Northern Baby mare Baby North, Got Koko was bred in Texas by Eileen Hartis. She found Baby North in the Keeneland November breeding stock sale in 1998.

"I liked the dam's catalog page," Hartis said. "She's a half to a couple of pretty decent stakes winners, and I also owned Cresta Lil, a stakes winner in the second dam, and bred a stakes winner out of her."

That was enough to bring Hartis around to inspect the mare in the barn of Fred Seitz's Brookdale Farm, consigning the mare for Rojan Mack Farms (Ellen Bongard and Jim and Lorna Mack). The inspection was important because, despite the pedigree, Hartis said, "when you go to the yearling sale, it's a beauty contest. You have to have size, substance, walk out well, have depth through the body, and length."

Hartis liked the mare and bought her for $11,000. Baby North was carrying Got Koko at the time.

In addition to pedigree and physical appeal, Hartis reasoned that there were practical reasons to take a chance on Baby North.

"I saw that [trainer D.] Wayne Lukas had bought her as a yearling for $260,000" at the Saratoga select yearling sale, Hartis said. She also thought the mare could be mated more successfully. She believed that "no matter what this Signal Tap may be like, I think I can do better with her."

The Signal Tap turned out pretty well, and Hartis sold the yearling later named Got Koko at the 2000 Keeneland September sale for $30,000 to trainer Bruce Headley. Denali Stud consigned the filly for Hartis, and owner Craig Bandoroff said : "Bruce Headley knows what he likes, and if he likes your horse, you're fine."

Hartis, who has only five mares on her 40-acre farm in Texas, does all the farm work and horse management herself. Baby North was last year's Texas broodmare of the year, and her foal following Got Koko is the Runaway Groom filly Runaway Chanel, who ran third in the Sorority Stakes last year. Baby North had a dead foal in 2001, and her foal last year was a filly by Marquetry. Consigned to the 2003 Keeneland January sale, the short yearling brought $215,000 from Josham Farms, agent.

Unfortunately, Baby North did not have a foal in 2003. Sent to first-year sire Street Cry, Baby North quickly got in foal, then lost it after 120 days. Hartis said, "after she aborted, we found a small problem and took care of it."

The mare's most famous offspring, Got Koko, is a Texas-bred because that is where she was foaled. But there's a but.

"Got Koko is still eligible for the New York Stallion Stakes because she is by a New York stallion," according to Chris Bernhard, general manager of the Questroyal stallions, which include the syndicated Signal Tap.

Questroyal acquired the son of leading sire Fappiano because, Bernhard said, "I'd been following the horse's career, saw that he had been injured, eased in his final race, and talked to Centennial Farm's Don Little Jr. about him. At that time, we were actively picking up a couple of horses off the racetrack, and we figured he had a strong shot at being a sire."

Part of their reason was Signal Tap's physique and part was his pedigree.

Signal Tap was a large and strongly made horse, typical of the Fappiano type, and he was the sort of big, impressive yearling who sold well, bringing $390,000 at the Keeneland July select sale in 1992. Signal Tap earned $429,108 on the track, with his most important victories coming in the Hialeah Turf Cup and Bougainvillea Handicap when he was 5.

In addition, Signal Tap was by a very promising sire of sires in Fappiano and out of the Northern Dancer mare South Sea Dancer, who is a full sister to champion and top sire Storm Bird (sire of Storm Cat and many other good horses) and to the top-quality racemare Northernette.

Even with these credentials, as Bernhard said, "Some people knocked him for being primarily a grass horse, but he's done well and is showing that he can get a quality runner on dirt."

This year, Signal Tap stood for $2,500 live foal, payable when the foal stands and nurses. "At this point we'll probably leave his stud fee where it is, and if he gets that hot, we'll see," Bernhard said.