11/12/2002 12:00AM

Getting to Japan via Pomona


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Reba's Gold awoke in his Hollywood Park stall Tuesday morning, innocently unaware of the events about to transpire.

Over the next week and a half, the humdrum routine of his Thoroughbred world would be shaken. He would experience sights, sounds, and smells far removed from his familiar Southern California surroundings.

The Pomona Handicap winner was heading for Japan.

A few years ago, the idea would have been preposterous. Even now, it's a little hard to swallow. A Japanese adventure was reserved for America's top turf horses on all-expense paid junkets to the Japan Cup, or high-priced yearlings purchased at Keeneland and Saratoga, or well-bred American stallions, exported from Kentucky to embark upon second careers.

Then there is Reba's Gold, a blue-collar guy if there ever was one. In 28 starts, he has banged out a half million in earnings for "Jeopardy" maestro Alex Trebek, most recently adding the Steinlen Handicap at Hollywood Park last Sunday. His only victory of any consequence came in the 2002 Pomona Handicap at the L.A. County Fair, although before that, Reba's Gold was respected among the Beyer Figure crowd with his fast one-mile allowance win over Sky Jack last February. He also finished second in the Tokyo City Handicap at Santa Anita, for those who enjoy coincidence.

On Nov. 23, one week from Saturday (Tokyo time) Reba's Gold will represent the United States in the Japan Cup Dirt. And while the name of the race does not exactly embrace the tongue (Japan Cup Soil was deemed inappropriate), the total purse of $1,984,000 looks good even if you called it the Toxic Waste Invitational.

The Dirt was named to set it apart from the Japan Cup, a grass race that dates back to 1981. In Japanese, the "Dirt" in Japan Cup Dirt sounds something like "daito," so let's go with that.

The Daito has been run only twice, and both runnings have been won by Japanese horses. The best American effort was the third-place finish by Lord Sterling, another Hollywood Park expatriate. Last year, Kurofune won by seven, while the top American runner, Lido Palace, finished eighth.

This year, in a one-shot deal, both the Japan Cup and the Daito will be run at Nakayama Racecourse, while the traditional host track, Tokyo Racecourse, is undergoing renovations. Nakayama is located to the northeast of Tokyo in the city of Chiba, which is not far from Narita International Airport. There is also a view of Mt. Fuji.

The Daito is contested at 1,800 meters, or about 34 feet shy of 1 1/8 miles. The Nakayama main track is just under one mile in circumference, with the final furlong rising six feet to the finish line.

The winner gets $1,040,000, just in case Reba's Gold decides to run the race of his life.

He will have to. Reba's Gold faces 16-hour plane ride followed by a week in a quarantined training center, then the final three days at Nakayama.

Before the race, he must keep his cool through an elaborate saddling paddock, walking ring, and post parade ordeal that lasts more than an hour. The surface at Nakayama is described as even slower and deeper than the dirt track at Tokyo Racecourse, where Kurofune ran his 1,800 meters in 2:05. To top it off, he will be running clockwise, the "wrong" way by American standards.

"Who knows what will happen?" said trainer Dan Hendricks. "The way I figure it, there's a rein on each side no matter which way he goes. So the jock leans to the right instead of the left. It shouldn't be a problem."

Hendricks is trying not to worry about such things, mainly because they are completely out of his control. He has been concentrating on his horse, and making sure Reba's Gold departs for Japan in the best possible condition.

Hendricks has never taken a horse to race aboard. Fortunately, he used to work for a guy who has become one of the leading American proponents of international racing, Richard Mandella, whose horses have run well in Japan, Brazil, and Dubai.

"I picked Richard's brain pretty good," Hendricks said. "There are a few little things we can do. Like that long wait after you leave the barn. For the last two weeks we've been riding Reba in the afternoon for half an hour. When we take him out on the track we try to settle him - anything to keep him relaxed and used to being out more."

Reba's Gold has cooperated. Now, late in his 5-year-old season, he has come to terms with his potent mix of Seattle Slew (through sire Slew o' Gold) and Northern Dancer (through damsire Herat).

"He's just an old pro now," Hendricks said. "He used to get hot and antsy in the paddock and going to the post, and too speed-oriented in his races. Not any more."

As for the trainer, he's covered.

"I love sushi," Hendricks said. "And I look at it this way. I'm not in a highly sophisticated business, in the sense of working for Microsoft, or something like that. And yet here we are, flying around the world, going to a place like Japan for a race. It's amazing where these horses can take you."