10/15/2003 12:00AM

Time to step up for Got Koko


Is it soup yet?

It is whenever Got Koko needs a between-meal snack. She will take a mouthful of hay, carefully move across her stall to her water bucket, and drop the hay into the water. A few minutes later, she digs into a treat she finds mmm, mmm good.

Got Koko is going from soup to the nuts. She will be one of the leading contenders in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff, which is expected to have a field deep on talent, though short on numbers, when the World Thoroughbred Championships are held at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

Her rivals are expected to include Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year; Sightseek, who developed into the top filly in New York this summer and fall; and Take Charge Lady, who most recently won Keeneland's Spinster Stakes for the second straight year. Toss in Grade 1-winning 3-year-old fillies Elloluv and Lady Tak, and the first of the eight Breeders' Cup races promises to get the day off to a strong start.

Got Koko has proven she belongs in that company. This winter at Santa Anita, she swept the three-race La Canada Series, becoming only the third 4-year-old filly to win the La Brea, El Encino, and La Canada stakes. In the La Canada, she defeated Sightseek while spotting Sightseek three pounds. And in her most recent start, Got Koko ended Azeri's 11-race winning streak by capturing the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap.

She also has a home-field advantage. Got Koko has won 5 times in 7 starts at Santa Anita, where she is based with trainer Bruce Headley.

Got Koko is one race away from being named the nation's champion older filly or mare. Yet her life has been one of curious under-appreciation. She is a daughter of Signal Tap, and was bred in Texas, both of which likely contributed to her being purchased for a mere $30,000 as a yearling. She has won 7 times in 13 starts - and is 7 for 10 if you exclude her three grass races - yet she has never been favored in any of her races, not even in the La Canada Stakes, when she was going for the series sweep.

She certainly will not be favored in the Distaff, not with Azeri and Sightseek grabbing the headlines. Got Koko was not even the main story she when the won the Lady's Secret three weeks ago. Her victory was overshadowed by Azeri's loss in the same race. If she wins the Distaff, though, Got Koko will finally get all the accolades.

"I would think so," said Headley, who purchased Got Koko as a yearling at Keeneland on behalf of his wife, Aase, and Paul Leung. "She has beaten Sightseek, and she beat Azeri. It would be logical to vote for her if she won on Breeders' Cup Day."

Headley said he was first attracted to Got Koko at the sale because "she looked like a runner." The bay filly, who has a long, white blaze down her face and a generous splash of white on her left front ankle, is "very correct and had all the dimensions of being a runner," Headley said.

"Plus, she was 30G's," he said, chuckling.

"She's a little bigger than average size," Headley added. "She has flat muscles, long legs, and a long stride. She's easy to train. She's not a run-off. She's not fractious. She doesn't sweat. She's very calm. And she eats well."

Got Koko rose to prominence last winter at Santa Anita. She was a 17-1 upset winner of the seven-furlong La Brea, then overcame wide trips to take both the El Encino and the La Canada. But in her first try in stakes company against older rivals, she flopped in the March 9 Santa Margarita Handicap, beaten 10 lengths by Starrer.

"The La Canada Series took its toll," Headley said. "She used a lot of energy up in those races. She was listless. Four races was too much."

Headley decided to give Got Koko a lengthy rest. "I needed to get her energy back up," he said. Got Koko did not return to races until five months later, in Del Mar's Clement Hirsch Handicap, in which she finished second to Azeri

"She was as fit as I could make her. She had worked a mile in 1:37, and had a series of fast workouts, but there's not anything like a race to get you at your best," Headley said. "And Azeri was at her best that day."

Got Koko was at her best in the Lady's Secret. "I thought we had a real good chance to get closer to Azeri, but to think we could beat Azeri was just a hopeful thought," Headley said.

No longer. Got Koko has done it once. If she does it again while winning the Distaff, an Eclipse Award is hers.

"You have to give Azeri the benefit of the doubt," Headley said. "It wasn't her day last time. But my filly's a trier. She's doing great. She came out of her last race in exceptional shape, and she's been playful after her work. Any horse who has a home-court advantage has an edge, especially when they like Santa Anita like she does."