11/11/2003 12:00AM

Call him 'Tokyo Doug' O'Neill


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Japanese culture values humility, serenity, and the willingness to take personal responsibility for the byproducts of one's own actions, be they glorious victories or disappointing defeats.

Tokyo, you're gonna love Doug O'Neill.

Fresh from a career-best Oak Tree meet, during which O'Neill's horses won a record 22 races, the trainer now will seek to conquer a brave new world when he takes Fleetstreet Dancer to Japan for the $2.1 million Japan Cup Dirt, to be run at the newly renovated Tokyo Race Course on Saturday, Nov. 29. The $4.3 million Japan Cup, featuring Johar, Sarafan, Denon, and Islington, will be run the following day.

How could O'Neill resist? It takes only small change to nominate, then once a horse is invited the rest of the tab is covered by the Japan Racing Association. Besides, a couple evenings singing karaoke in a Ginza nightclub will be a great way for O'Neill to clear his head and forget about what happened at Santa Anita last Saturday.

With 11 starters spread out over the seven major races at the heart of the $1.3 million California Cup program, O'Neill followers were ready to reap grand rewards. Doug also thought the day might go okay.

Then, well, karma happens. The spectacular collapse of O'Neill's runaway training express at Cal Cup was enough to weaken the strongest knees (please refer to Bfrankel@BreedersCup.ouch). Zero-for-11 might work okay for a bomb run over the mountains of Afghanistan, as long as number 12 hits an Al-Qaeda cave. But for Oak Tree's leading trainer to go so visibly bust on the biggest local day of the meet, something must have gone terribly wrong.

In fairness, O'Neill's Cal Cup card was more about numbers than contenders. Six of his starters ranged from 8-1 to 69-1 and only one (Sea to See in the Mile) was favored. His best hope, Classic favorite Sky Jack, went lame the day before the race and stayed in the barn.

"We were throwing a few darts out there," O'Neill conceded, "just taking a chance with a once-a-year type of thing. Thank goodness they all came back okay."

That includes Grant Marty a Wish, who was eased to the finish of the downhill Distaff.

To his credit, O'Neill maintained an air of diplomatic aplomb, even as the afternoon dissolved around him. He even managed a whiff of dark humor during a simulcast interview with Mike Willman late in the day, when the stable was down to Black Horse Money and Pleasure Honor in the Cal Cup Juvenile. They finished second and sixth.

"Thanks for reminding me I'm oh-for-nine," O'Neill deadpanned. "My brother said I picked a bad week to stop drinking, but that's a whole other issue."

The fact that Doug and big brother Dennis can swap references from the movie "Airplane!" under such trying circumstances reveals a level of mental health the rest of us should envy. "He gets to pick on me once in awhile," Doug said, "and I think he keeps that line handy."

As a consolation, the Japan Cup Dirt is worth more than all the Cal Cup races combined. O'Neill will dispatch Fleetstreet Dancer to Tokyo on Nov. 20, accompanied by a groom and a rider. O'Neill and his wife, Lynette, will follow.

"We kind of laughed about it at first," O'Neill said. "It didn't make a whole lot of sense. But the more we learned about it, the more interested we became. He came out of his last race great, and he looks good weight-wise. If he handles the trip, he should be competitive."

Fleetstreet Dancer, owned by Lee and Ty Leatherman, came to the attention of the JRA after his close second-place finish to Pleasantly Perfect in the Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita on Oct. 4. When Pleasantly Perfect went on win the Breeders' Cup Classic, Fleetstreet Dancer's form looked even better, and he fits with the class of horse that usually competes in the Japan Cup Dirt.

Still, the long trip to Tokyo is a calculated risk. O'Neill sent Avanzado to Dubai last March for the Golden Shaheen and subsequently watched his top sprinter go winless for more than six months before snapping back to life in the Ancient Title Handicap. Furthermore, Fleetstreet Dancer is not necessarily the best candidate for an international adventure.

"I shipped him one other time up north [to San Francisco]," O'Neill said. "He ran a really good second, but he washed out and didn't seem to handle it real well. So we know going in that he doesn't act like a horse who's real keen on shipping. But you never know for sure until you try it. The Leathermans are completely comfortable with the fact that he may need six months off after the race."

As for any lingering Cal Cup blues, O'Neill had nothing but praise for his stable crew, led by assistant trainer Leandro Mora.

"After a day like that, you definitely want to see the people who work for you a little bummed out," O'Neill said. "Otherwise you might think their heart's not into it. In a way, then, it was kind of nice to share that - all of us bummed out together. The important thing here is that tomorrow is always a new day. And after a day like that, you appreciate winning even more."