12/17/2001 12:00AM

Japan rising: Agnes Digital tops in Cup

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HONG KONG - Truly historic days are rare in racing, but Sunday was one of them as Japanese-trained horses emerged with victories in three of the four Hong Kong International Races.

There was a feeling of a sea of change in the air at Sha Tin as Agnes Digital held off a renewed challenge from Tobougg and a late charge from Terre a Terre to take the $2.3 million Group 1 Hong Kong Cup after Stay Gold and Eishin Preston had captured the Vase and the Mile.

No invading team from a single country has ever won as many as three races at any of the world's big international racing festivals. After big wins in Europe with Taiki Blizzard and Agnes World and Kurofune's thumping of Lido Palace in the Japan Cup Dirt, Japan has emerged as a major player on the main stage as racing continues to expand its global profile.

The winner by a head, Agnes Digital (3-1) will take his show on the road again next year. A 4-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Crafty Prospector out of the Chief's Crown mare Chancey Squaw, Agnes Digital will be aimed at the Dubai World Cup, to which Kurofune is also being pointed.

"After that, we would like to run in either the Breeders' Cup Turf or the Breeders' Cup Classic," said trainer Toshiaki Shirai. "I think from this point onward, you will see many more Japanese horses competing in international races."

Agnes Digital not only has the breeding for dirt, but also the credentials, having won 7 of 12 on dirt in Japan, among them a Grade 1, a Grade 2, and three Grade 3's. He was coming off a late-running triumph over racing's all-time leading earner, T.M. Opera O, in the Grade 1 Autumn Tenno Sho, and had to overcome a dreadful number 12 draw at Sha Tin on Sunday.

"When I hit the front over 200 yards from the line I could feel and hear the other horses trying to make a run at us, but I knew we had the situation completely under control," said winning rider Hirofumi Shii, who apparently felt more concerned about living up to the new high standards of Japanese racing than he did about any threat mustered by the 7-5 choice Tobougg, Terre a Terre, or the next two home, Hawkeye and Jim and Tonic.

"After Eishin Preston and Stay Gold won their races, I did feel some pressure because I knew I was expected to win my race, too," Shii said. "Now I'm going to go out and have a very fine celebration."