06/03/2008 11:00PM

Casino Drive's trainer Japan's best


ELMONT, N.Y. - Casino Drive has more than just the pedigree to be a legitimate Belmont Stakes contender. In Kazuo Fujisawa, Casino Drive has the top trainer in Japan calling the shots.

Fujisawa, 56, has been Japan's leading trainer in terms of wins 11 times since 1993, including last year, when he won 48 races. Fujisawa learned how to train horses by working for the highly respected English trainer Gavin Pritchard-Gordon in Newmarket. Fujisawa was an assistant trainer in Japan for 10 years before going out on his own in 1988.

Since then, Fujisawa has trained several champions, including three who became Japan's Horse of the Year: Taiki Shuttle (1998), Symboli Kris K (2002 and 2003), and Zenno Rob Roy (2004). In 2006, Fujisawa won the Grade 3 CashCall Mile at Hollywood Park with Dance in the Mood.

In Saturday's Belmont Stakes, Casino Drive will attempt to thwart Big Brown's Triple Crown bid. Kent Desormeaux, the regular rider of Big Brown and aboard Casino Drive in the Peter Pan, is quite familiar with Fujisawa. Desormeaux rode for Fujisawa for five years (2001-05) when he spent part of his time racing in Japan.

"For me, he's kind of like a Bill Mott or a Richard Mandella," said Desormeaux, referring to two Hall of Fame trainers. "Everyone there respects him immensely.

"He's just a fun guy always cracking jokes," Desormeaux added. "He really enjoys his job, I do know that. He takes a lot of pride in being able to teach a horse how to be a racehorse. He's just very good at what he does. His specialty is taking horses and turning them into champions."

When Desormeaux was in Japan, he would not only ride for Fujisawa in the afternoon, but three mornings a week he would gallop horses.

"He's never once asked me to do anything but be patient on his horses; that's the only thing he ever told me 'I just want a patient jockey, that's all,' " Desormeaux said. "So he leaves me to [be] the tactician; breaking down races and where we think we're going to fit in."

The Japan Racing Association describes Fujisawa as one of the pioneers in the internationalization of Japanese horse racing. Nobutaka Tada, who serves as the racing manager for Casino Drive's owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto as well as Fujisawa, said Fujisawa has instituted many changes in the way Japanese horsemen train.

"Now everybody follows him," Tada said.

As examples, Tada cites the fact that Fujisawa walks his horses for long periods of time before and after their morning training. Tada said that is done to help with the "circulation, muscles, tendons. It's good for everything."

While it is commonplace in North America for trainers to send their horses to the track in sets of five or six, such wasn't the case in Japan until Fujisawa came along, Tada said. Other methods Fujisawa is given credit for in Japan include feeding all his horses at the same time, no whipping in the morning, and no hard works the week of racing.

Of course, all plans are subject to deviation. Three days before Casino Drive won the Peter Pan Stakes by 5 3/4 lengths, Casino Drive did have a strong work, drilling five furlongs in 59.94 seconds. But in the weeks leading up to the Belmont, Casino Drive has simply galloped and is unlikely to have a published work leading up to the race.

Tada explained that prior to the Peter Pan, Casino Drive had not raced in 11 weeks and had an inordinate amount of shipping. Now, he will have had four weeks between races and has been stabled in the same spot for a month.

In Japan, Fujisawa trains approximately 72 horses - the maximum allowed - based at three different facilities. About four years ago, he began training for Yamamoto.

Yamamoto founded Fields Corp., a Japanese-based company whose principal activities are to develop, manufacture, and sell amusement/game machines as well as slot machines. The group is also involved in operating gyms, selling jewelry, and real estate.

According to Tada, Yamamoto's goal in racing is to have an international presence. Tada said the race Yamamoto covets most is the Arc de Triomphe in France.

"He's 52, his company is doing well, he made a fortune, he used to like the horses and horse racing, and he felt it was the time to go in," Tada said. "He's just a new boy in the industry."

Four years ago, Tada began attending auctions in America on behalf of Yamamoto. One of the first horses he bought for him was a son of Storm Cat and Eliza who sold for only $150,000 in 2004. The horse has won 4 of 29 starts and earned $728,607.

In 2006, at the Keeneland September yearling sale, Tada purchased a son of Mineshaft for $950,000. The dam was Better Than Honour, who had thrown 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil. Another of Better Than Honour's progeny, Rags to Riches, was a winless maiden at the time. She would go on to win the Belmont last June.

Following the sale in September, Casino Drive was sent to Northern Farm in Hokkaido, Japan, to be trained as a racehorse. He came to the JRA Miho Training Center in May and was nearly ready to run in July, but stumbled one morning and cut his knees.

Casino Drive debuted Feb. 23 at Kyoto, where he won a 1 1/8-mile race by 11 1/2 lengths, in front all the way.

It was after that maiden win that Casino Drive was pointed for the Belmont Stakes. To get there, however, has not been easy.

Casino Drive was taken out of the JRA Training Center and sent to Yamamoto Training Center, a private facility that is not affiliated with the owner despite having the same name. It was a good thing they made that move because on March 15 there was an outbreak of influenza at Miho. Had Casino Drive stayed there he would not have been able to come to this country until May 15, five days after the Peter Pan.

Casino Drive was sent back to Miho in early April, but he was kept isolated from the other horses. He did a one-week quarantine period at Niigata Racetrack and one night at another training center near the airport before shipping to New York on April 28.

After two days of quarantine at Aqueduct, Casino Drive arrived at Belmont on April 30. Ten days later, he romped in the Peter Pan.

"That's why we were so impressed what he has done in the Peter Pan," Tada said. "He had so much to overcome. We knew he was ready to run; we didn't expect such a race. We hoped he'd just get back to the barn safely.''

Though he came from off the pace in the Peter Pan, Casino Drive could very much be forwardly placed in the Belmont.

"You can't see it in Peter Pan, but he has so much speed," Tada said. "The great thing about him is he can control that. He can wait to show his speed and he's been trained and has been taught to control his speed.''

Taught by one of Japan's very best.