08/23/2007 12:00AM

Atlando has shared owner's plight


DEL MAR, Calif. - Gary Tanaka can be forgiven if he identifies deeply with his grass horse Atlando, who runs on Sunday against After Market and Runaway Groom in the $250,000 Del Mar Handicap.

Tanaka has been under house arrest, while on $10 million bail, in his son's New York City residence for the past 27 months, with his movements restricted and monitored while he awaits trial on federal charges that his company, Amerindo Investment Advisors, misused a client's funds. Tanaka has been ready to defend himself against the charges for more than a year and a half, but for some reason federal authorities have been reluctant to present their case in court. It is not a stretch to wonder if the feds truly have much of a case against Tanaka, or if they are in fact waiting for him to offer up some kind of damning evidence in their case against Tanaka's former partner, Alberto Vilar.

Like Tanaka, Atlando has spent most of the last two seasons in the sidelines. His problem was ankles, not the feds, but until the current Del Mar meeting, Atlando raced just four times in 2006 and twice in early 2007.

This is a shame, because Atlando, who raced in France, hit American shores with a splash in October of 2005, winning the Knickerbocker Handicap at Belmont Park the day after the Breeders' Cup was contested over the same ground. After that, it was hardly a surprise that he unleashed four good races the following winter at Santa Anita, including a victory in the San Luis Obispo Handicap.

But then came Atlando's first long layoff, followed by two so-so starts at the 2007 Santa Anita meet. After that, the ankle flared, and it was another lengthy spell on the bench.

"I suppose you could always squeeze another race out of a horse," said Cris Vienna, son and assistant to Atlando's trainer, Darrell Vienna. "But then you'd probably be sacrificing two or three starts later on, if he came back at all."

The apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. The younger Vienna sounded just like his father, who has brought horses back to their previous form more than a few times after minor injuries. The trick was not letting those injuries become major.

In 1992, Vienna campaigned champion 2-year-old colt Gilded Time for owner David Milch. Gilded Time won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Gulfstream Park, then did not reappear in competition for more than a year when he was third, beaten a length, in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita Park.

At the age of 6, Atlando is the most recent Vienna runner to enjoy a renaissance of good health and high spirits. The Del Mar Handicap, at 11 furlongs on the grass, will be his third start in 35 days, following a dry run in the Eddie Read Handicap on July 22 and a victory in the restricted Cougar II Handicap on Aug. 1. Darrell Vienna pointed to Atlando relaxing in an outside pen, hock-deep in straw and nibbling on an arrangement of alfalfa in one corner.

"He's a stall-walker, and we tried everything," Darrell Vienna said. "I had him back there in a stall where he couldn't see anything, thinking he was bothered by all the activity. He was worse. Finally, we put him outside. Five minutes later he dropped his head and was quiet as could be. He just didn't want to be inside. Makes me feel like a dummy."

Vienna, hardly a dummy, has won most of Del Mar's best events, including the two runnings of the Ramona Handicap (now the Mabee), three Pat O'Briens, the Eddie Read, the Bing Crosby, and the Del Mar Handicap in 1991 with My Style. For Tanaka, his best runner has been Star Parade, the six-time American stakes winner who earned more than a million dollars.

At the same time Atlando's claustrophobia was accommodated, his old aches and pains were responding with gratitude to his training over the main track Polytrack surface installed this summer at Del Mar.

"I have no doubts that Polytrack is the reason we've been able go on with a horse like Atlando," Vienna said. "I'm only sorry it didn't come around sooner."

Not surprisingly, Vienna is an outspoken proponent of Polytrack.

"When asked, I say that Polytrack is the best of all the surfaces we've trained on," Vienna said. "I don't really understand those who are criticizing it. If they have their priorities in order, then the health and safety of the horses and riders come first. True horsemen will agree there is no real argument about that.

"But if you have a horse who just lost a race, and you criticize the surface, you are looking at the issue with a very narrow focus. The fact is, horses are coming back from racing and training much sounder."

In terms of current Vienna stable stars, Atlando might have to take a backseat to the 3-year-old Medici Code, the La Jolla Handicap winner who runs next in the $400,000 Del Mar Derby on Sept. 2. But the spotlight belongs this weekend to Atlando, who didn't like being penned up any more than his owner does every day.