01/21/2004 12:00AM

Santa Monica still sparkling

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ARCADIA, Calif. - On Saturday at Santa Anita Park, in the West Coast version of the Sunshine Millions, fans will be treated to bathing beauties, sky divers, free hats, and four competitive fields running for the kind of money that could finance a primary campaign. It should be good, clean, mindless fun.

The best race of the weekend, however, will take place on Sunday, when the Santa Monica Handicap is run for the 47th time at seven furlongs on the main track for older fillies and mares.

And while the format for the Sunshine Millions is Florida vs. California (wouldn't it be simpler to just let the two governors wrestle?), the Santa Monica will boil down to a rough-and-tumble battle pitting Got Koko, the pride of Texas, against Sightseek and Island Fashion, two fair flowers from Kentucky.

The field for the $250,000 Santa Monica would have been stronger still without the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint on its doorstep. Bear Fan, Madame Pietra, and Barbara O'Brien - all of them running on Saturday at Santa Anita - would have been worthy Santa Monica runners, especially under the handicap conditions of the race.

But what owner of a Cal-bred or a Fla-bred would consciously choose to run against the two top older mares active right now in California, plus the leading 4-year-old filly, when he could be part of a nationally televised extravaganza while facing softer company for more money? And don't forget those sky divers.

There are still fans, thank goodness, who measure the quality of a field not by the number of possible trifecta combinations, but by the class of the competition and the historical context of their efforts. A brief look at the Santa Monica reveals a race that has stood tall on all counts since its first running in 1957. To the credit of the people in charge, it has never gone by another name, never changed in distance, and has always been run between the second and fourth weeks of January.

Sunday's field may comprise only five runners. Blame the Sunshine Millions for that. But size didn't really matter in 1969, when champion Gamely defeated Time to Leave, Guest Room, Princessnesian, and Gallarush, or in 1985 when Lovlier Linda led a four-way photo-finish that included Donstop Themusic, Foggy Nation, and Holiday Dancer. Tangent finished fifth.

Imagine, though, the 13-horse field for the 1975 Santa Monica, when Sister Fleet upset Susan's Girl, Modus Vivendi, Tizna, and La Zanzara. Or the 14-horse stampede in 1966 led by the William Haggin Perry team of Batteur and Terentia. Or the gang of 16 who gathered in 1964, for a purse of $24,650, in a race won by Chop House in a photo over Sunday Doll.

Beyond sheer entertainment, Santa Monica winners have carried the breed on their broad shoulders. Mary Machree won the first running, then produced major stakes winners Hill Circus and Hill Clown. Face the Facts, the winner in 1965, gave us major stakes winners Bicker, Judger, and Proof, while Tizna, the grand Chilean mare who won in 1974, produced Tizly, dam of Cee's Tizzy. All he did was sire Tiznow.

Grenzen, the 1979 winner, was the dam of Twilight Agenda, one of best older horses of 1991-92. Lovlier Linda, winner of that 1985 thriller, produced Old Trieste. Key Phrase, who romped by six in 1995, spawned Yankee Gentleman. And even though 2000 Santa Monica winner Honest Lady has yet to send a foal to the races, does anyone think that the daughter of Toussaud (dam of Empire Maker and Chester House) will be anything less than a blue-hen mama?

Toga Toga Toga, who won the Santa Monica on a rainy Jan. 25 in 1997, made headlines at stud by producing a $1.8 million yearling. The colt was named Dubai Tiger by his owner, Sheikh Mohammed, in honor of Tiger Woods.

Eduardo Inda trained Toga Toga Toga to win her Santa Monica, in which she popped a mild upset of Track Gal and Advancing Star. Inda is back to try again on Sunday with the New York mare Sparkling Ava, owned by Barry Schwartz, chairman of the board of the New York Racing Association.

On paper, Sparkling Ava can hardly be mentioned in the same breath with Sightseek and Got Koko. She hit the board in a small Florida stakes last year, but she has not won since November of 2002. In two starts for Inda, Sparkling Ava was up the track to Star Parade in the Bayakoa Handicap and then third in the local Kalookan Queen, an overnight handicap named for the winner of the 2003 Santa Monica.

"I guess she had a little head problem before, but she seems to be going good now," Inda said. "I mentioned to Barry the other day that this time we're running against the best fillies in America. He laughed and said, 'Let's try and see what happens.' "

Even though Sparkling Ava will be the longest shot in the Santa Monica, Inda can cling to the same slim ray of hope that sometimes turns form upside down. Besides, he's the only trainer in the field who can introduce his wife as Monica.

"That's true," Inda said. "And married to me, she's got to be a saint."