02/10/2003 12:00AM

Small-budget breeder has struck gold

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Don't mess with Texas. I think that's what the Prez said. But how could he have known about the showdown at Santa Anita Park last Saturday? That's when Sightseek did everything but sprout wings near the end of the La Canada Stakes, reaching hard for all her considerable worth, and still could not handle Got Koko, the pride of Austin County.

"I knew it would be a duel in the sun," said down-home poet Bruce Headley, who trains Got Koko for his wife, Aase, and partner Paul Leung.

Headley may be a California boy, born and raised, but his footwear screams pure cowboy, and on this particular day he was in his pointy-toed best, basking in the glory of Got Koko's bravest race to date. Given up for dead on the La Canada's final turn, as Sightseek and Bella Bellucci ran one-two, Got Koko gave Alex Solis a finish that only very good Thoroughbreds produce.

Got Koko's victory rippled across the country in various ways. Back East, attention should be paid, since it was the La Canada Stakes of 2002 that featured Summer Colony, Azeri, and Affluent, the three best of their division through the subsequent campaign. In southeast Texas, they can't wait for the weekly replays.

"I didn't get to see the race yet," said Eileen Hartis, the breeder of Got Koko. "The only time I saw her run was on tape when the Texas Thoroughbred Breeders gave her the award as champion 3-year-old filly.

"They showed a little clip of her race in the Torrey Pines, and then the La Brea. She looked pretty awesome."

Texas never took a backseat to any regional breeding industry when the King Ranch of Robert J. Kleberg was in full-blooded operation. Spread out over more than 1,300 square miles south of Corpus Cristi, the King Ranch produced 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault, 1950 Derby and Belmont winner Middleground, and a host of major stakes winners.

Now there is Runaway Farm, the latest epicenter of Texas breeding. Hartis and her husband, Gene, have six mares and 40 - that's four-oh - acres outside the town of Sealy, with a population of 5,000 and change. Located just west of Houston, Sealy was heretofore known as the birthplace of Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson.

Move over, Eric. If Got Koko keeps building on her performances in the La Brea, El Encino, and La Canada stakes, she could make a mark on the national scene that goes far beyond her three-race sweep this winter at Santa Anita. She is also proof that a good horse can come from anywhere.

Locals know the Hartis family as the proprietors of the Century Showroom home decor supply in Houston, an upstanding endeavor that is a far cry from the unpredictable world of Thoroughbred bloodstock.

But Eileen Hartis had a dream, and the drive to make it come true.

With horses in her blood for 40 years, she began to research Thoroughbred families and conformation with a passion. Stir in a graduate degree in biology, and a breeder was born.

"I studied pedigrees for about 15 years before my husband said, '?Here's X amount of money. You can start your business. Sink or swim from here,' " Eileen said.

That was 12 years ago. At the time she had a daughter, age 2, and a newborn son.

"My budget was extremely low," she went on. "My business plan was to try to do everything a little bit better than the previous owners had done with the mares, and raise a little bit better foal, doing it real hands-on. I'm the only one who takes care of the horses, cleans the stalls, mows the grass."

Baby North, the dam of Got Koko, cost Hartis $11,000 at a Keeneland mixed sale in November of 1998. She was carrying a foal by Signal Tap at the time, and delivered the filly on Jan. 25, 1999. In September of 2000 the foal was sold for $30,000, traveled to California, and became Got Koko.

Now Runaway is on a roll. Eleven days after Got Koko became a major stakes winner in the La Brea Stakes on Dec. 28, her half-sister by Marquetry, a Hollywood Gold Cup winner, sold for $215,000 at the Keeneland mixed sale.

As for the factory, Baby North is back home at Runaway, awaiting word on her mate for 2003. Hartis was in Lexington, Ky., this week searching for a suitable match.

"Baby North is under lights in my five-stall red metal barn," she said "We did breed her last year, but she backed out of the cycle, and we never did get her to ovulate. I guess after four foals in a row, and she decided she was going to take her own time off.

"Now she's been checked, cultured, and ultrasounded. She's ready to roll again as soon as I decide who it's going to be."

And with a little more in the budget to spend on a stallion, who knows what Hartis and Baby North will come up with next?

"It's like winning the equine lottery," Hartis said. "I bought my ticket, and I won. Now my children can see that mom didn't go out there at all hours of the night for nothing."