02/13/2002 1:00AM

Gourmet Girl can be a rare treat


ARCADIA, Calif. - Among the amazing things that have happened more than once in the last 65 years are the following:

Man walks on the moon.

U.S. men's hockey team wins Olympic gold medal.

Miniature poodle takes Westminster Kennel Club Best-in-Show.

Then there is the list of even more amazing occurrences, things that have happened only once during the same span of time:

Halley's Comet sighted from Earth.

Actor elected to the White House.

California-bred mare wins Eclipse Award.

That's right, folks. Since 1936, when the game first saw fit to acknowledge seasonal champions, there has been only one female racehorse bred, foaled, and raised in the great state of California who was deemed worthy enough to be proclaimed a national champion, either by ballot, poll, or office pool.

Talk about an ego reality check.

This remarkable stat embraces a total of 188 champion fillies and mares, hailing from all corners of Europe and the Americas, covering three different age groups and such specialty divisions as sprinters and grass. From Myrtlewood to Surfside, from Inscoelda to Riboletta, from Unerring to Caressing and all the grand mares in between, the only daughter of the West to be acclaimed best of the best was the turf mare Brown Bess, way back in 1989.

Impossible, you say? (Or, "It figures," if you lean toward the East.) But what about Fran's Valentine, winner of the Santa Anita Oaks and Kentucky Oaks? Or Cat's Cradle, winner of the Acorn? Or Soviet Problem, who came within a head of winning a Breeders' Cup Sprint? Guess again.

Honeymoon beat the boys in both the 1946 Hollywood Derby and Hollywood Gold Cup, then beat males once more in Chicago. She must have been a champion. Right? During the late 1970's, B. Thoughtful won nearly everything in sight in Southern California for three straight years. Didn't that count for something? And wasn't there a trophy for June Darling, who towered over the West Coast 2-year-olds of 1970, both male and female?

Sorry to say, the answers are nope, nyet, and nein. But thanks for asking.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that trainer Pico Perdomo was nearly knocked off his pony Wednesday morning while parked on the Hollywood training track when he was informed that Gourmet Girl had a chance to make some Eclipse Award history next Monday night. To join Brown Bess in an exclusive club of two, all she needs to do is get the nod Monday in Miami in the wide-open race for champion older female of 2001.

"Only one?" Perdomo said. "You sure? There have been so many good mares run in California. How about Cascapedia, the mare Gordon Campbell trained?"

For the last time, it's been only Brown Bess, m-kay? Champion mare Cascapedia was raced by the noted California breeders Ben and Georgia Ridder, but she was a Kentucky-bred through and through.

Besides, Gourmet Girl fits the profile of the over-achieving Cal-bred, fighting tooth and claw for the scraps of national recognition. Perdomo bought her at the Del Mar yearling sale for $3,500 from her breeders, Carl and Olivia Cannata, and parlayed her ability into a sweet sale to Gary Tanaka three years later. In 2001, she reached full bloom, winning the Apple Blossom Handicap and Vanity Handicap in her first five starts.

Gourmet Girl was on course for an Eastern invasion when she finished second to Tranquility Lake in the Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar and emerged with a sore shin. That was in August, when the division leadership was still up for grabs.

"A veterinarian recommended to me that we could inject the splint and keep going," Perdomo said. "I couldn't do that. I tried to go the old-fashioned way, with paint and mud. But it wasn't getting any better. Very tender. I had to make a decision."

Perdomo called Tanaka, and Tanaka tossed it back to his trainer.

"He said, 'What would you do if she was yours?' " Perdomo recalled. "It broke my heart, because we were in a position to go in the Ruffian and then the Breeders' Cup. It was a very difficult position. How many times are you going to have a mare who might be favored in the Breeders' Cup? I didn't sleep for two nights."

In the end, Perdomo pulled Gourmet Girl out of training and pin-fired the problem shin. Now she is coming back, at the age of 7. On Monday, Perdomo will find out if he will be bringing back a champion.

"Unfortunately, I can't go to Florida," he said. "Work comes first, and I've got to be at Santa Anita to run a nice maiden that day, then on Tuesday or Wednesday I go to Argentina for some new clients."

Perdomo is 59, with a lifetime worth of experience that began as a jockey in his native Uruguay. As a rider, he won about 1,100 races and the Uruguayan Triple Crown twice, with horses named Snow Crown and Loco Loco. ("That's right," he said. "He was called 'Crazy Crazy.' ") Later, he was an assistant for Angel Penna and Vincent Clyne, but in 25 years as a head trainer, he has never been anywhere near an Eclipse Award winner.

"She is already a champion to me," Perdomo said of Gourmet Girl. "Nobody has ever touched her but me, and what we did, we did together. That is what means a lot to me. I feel lucky to be around a filly like her.

"When I stop on her last year, I put her first, because she deserved it,"

Perdomo added. "Now she is sound, and strong mentally. I think this could be her best year."