02/06/2003 12:00AM

Name of this game is sweep


ARCADIA, Calif. - It should come as no surprise that the La Canada series of races for freshly turned 4-year-old fillies at three different distances taking place over a span of barely 40 days has been swept only two times in its 28-year history.

It's tough enough just to pronounce.

Why, wonder those who are new to the concept, would a Southern California racetrack want to honor our hockey-crazed neighbors to the far north? And why "La" Canada rather than "Oh" Canada?

Actually, La Canada (say "can-yada") is an upscale community northwest of Santa Anita, originally settled in 1843 by a Mexican schoolteacher named Ignacio Coronel, and now joined at the hip to horsey Flintridge. If you live there, you are doing just fine.

And if your filly wins the La Canada, she has done something extraordinary. The list of winners includes champions Chris Evert, Glorious Song, Lady's Secret, Family Style, and Jewel Princess, as well as near-champions Goodbye Halo, Manistique, and Spain. The only race Azeri lost last year was the La Canada. That's how tough it can be.

Now it is Got Koko's turn to try. She is a leggy, relentlessly closing piece of work, owned by restaurateur Paul Leung and trained by Bruce Headley. On Saturday, she will try to become the first filly in 18 years to nail down a series sweep, with a La Canada purse of $200,000 on the line. Bella Bellucci, Bare Necessities, Revenante, and Sightseek stand in her way.

The first filly to take the series was Taisez Vous in 1978. She was ridden by Don Pierce and trained by the late Robert Wheeler, who did business in the Headley corner of the Santa Anita stables. She also made it look pretty easy. Taisez Vous romped in the La Canada by four.

In 1985, the star of the La Canada series was an elegant bay daughter of Hold Your Peace named Mitterand, who was trained by Randy Winick and raced for the Silver Star Stable of Ross Gilbert. Arnold Winick, the trainer' s father, was the breeder.

"She was just one of the thrills of all time," said Gilbert, who lives in Del Mar. "She turned out to be a superstar."

Mitterand and Percipient, a daughter of Topsider owned by Robert Hibbert, had their own little Affirmed-Alydar thing going that winter. They finished one-two in each of the three legs of the series, crammed into a 35-day period and culminated by Mitterand's victory by three-quarters of a length in the La Canada.

By the time Mitterand came into his life, Gilbert was already accustomed to winning major races. He bought his first horses in 1960, but it was in the mid-1970's when they put him on the map. Winds of Thought, who beat Pass the Glass and Dahlia in the 1976 Century Handicap at Hollywood Park, was Gilbert's best of that period.

He bought Mitterand as an unraced 2-year-old and named her for a close friend and houseguest, with connections. Maxim Mitterrand was the nephew of Francois Mitterrand, who was at that time the president of France.

"I don't know why I dropped that second 'r' in her name," Gilbert said. "Whatever the reason, it was a lamebrain idea."

At one point during Mitterand's run, Gilbert owned upward of 50 horses. It's a wonder they didn't all have names like C-Class, Diesel, and Baby Benz. Gilbert owned the West's most successful Mercedes-Benz dealership in Beverly Hills.

"I raced for 25 years as the Silver Star Stable, and everyone thought it was because I was a Mercedes dealer," he noted, alluding to the signature hood ornament. "But it wasn't."

It was because, quite simply, Gilbert was awarded the Silver Star. He declined to elaborate on the details, mentioning only something about being an infantryman in "the first invasion of Leyte in the Philippines and the first wave of Okinawa."

According to the manual of U.S. Army individual decorations, "The Silver Star is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army, is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing force."

Okinawa certainly qualifies. It was the last great battle of World War II in the Pacific, where 12,000 American soldiers and sailors were killed along with more than 100,000 Japanese.

Next to that, horse racing is a stroll in the park. Gilbert is still very much in the business, and still trying to find another Mitterand. He has the La Brea, El Encino, and La Canada trophies on display in his home, just for inspiration.

"I knew it was difficult at the time, although I am surprised it hasn't been done since," Gilbert said. "I hope Bruce Headley is able to do it with his filly, because he's a good guy, and a good trainer. But it does take a special horse to do it. Not just a good horse. A special horse."