01/23/2004 12:00AM

Santa Monica top 3 this close

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PHOENIX - It's tough enough when you have two rivals that appear evenly matched, but Sunday's seven-furlong, Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap at Santa Anita bumps up the ante because three major, well-matched females will be knocking heads.

Separating them is not easy. I will go back to the basics to grade the three big ones - Sightseek, Got Koko, and Island Fashion - in four categories. The best in each category gets three points, second-best two points, and third-best one point.

Style: Island Fashion, coming off a dazzling win in the seven-furlong, Grade 1 La Brea last month, showed she can press 44-second and change splits and keep going. Sightseek is more sustained speed; sizzling early isn't really her game. She will at least be fairly close to the pace. When she won last May's Grade 1 Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs at seven furlongs she was fifth early but less than two lengths off the pace. Got Koko, meanwhile, is content to settle into stride then blast home the final half-mile. When she won the La Brea in 2002, she came from 11 lengths out of it.

And I want speed. I don't like all this 'cover' talk. I want to be on the lead. I want first run. Speed wins races and Island Fashion has it.

Points: Island Fashion 3, Sightseek 2, Got Koko 1.

Current form: Island Fashion skipped the Breeders' Cup and made her turf debut in the Grade 1 Matriarch at Hollywood Nov. 30, running a terrific fourth. She then won the La Brea in late December. She was entered in last Sunday's Grade 2 El Encino but trainer Marcelo Polanco opted to wait for this much tougher assignment instead. She's fit and worked fast last week.

Sightseek and Got Koko, meanwhile, haven't raced since finishing fourth and third, respectively, in the BC Distaff. They're trained by Bobby Frankel and Bruce Headley, both of whom are expert at getting horses ready off the bench.

Points: Island Fashion 3; Sightseek and Got Koko 1.5 each.

Class: Sightseek won four Grade 1's last year, beating every major female except Azeri and Wild Spirit, whom she did not face. Got Koko beat Sightseek in last year's Grade 2 La Canada at Santa Anita and in the BC Distaff, and defeated 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri in the Grade 1 Lady's Secret.

Island Fashion has two Grade 1 wins, in the Alabama and the La Brea, but those races are restricted to 3-year-olds. She has yet to beat elders.

Points: Sightseek and Got Koko 2.5 each, Island Fashion 1.

Intangibles: There's little to differentiate on a Beyer basis. Island Fashion just earned a 109 in the La Brea. Sightseek rattled off Beyers of 108, 107, 110, 115, and 107 during her big run last year. Got Koko earned 107, 106, and 105 over this track. Which brings us to maybe the most important item here - familiarity with the track. Got Koko thinks she owns this place. She's 5 for 8 here. Island Fashion has two Santa Anita starts: her La Brea win and a second as a maiden in her second career start. Things are less rosy for Sightseek. She's 0 for 4 at Santa Anita, though her only dull outing here was a non-threatening fourth in the BC Distaff.

Another intangible is purpose. Surely the connections of Got Koko and Sightseek want to win this race, but it's also the first step back after a few months off and merely a stepping-stone.

That's not true of Island Fashion. Sure, her connections want a big year, too, but they had a chance to grab some easy money in last week's El Encino against a much easier field. Instead, they opted for this race, facing two of the best females in training. They want this race.

Points: Got Koko 3, Island Fashion 2, Sightseek 1.

Totals: Island Fashion 9, Got Koko 8, Sightseek 7. Not to say Sightseek can't win - heck, she will be favored - but this analysis does tell you that Island Fashion might be the play because certain things appear in her favor. And she almost certainly won't be favored.