06/30/2005 12:00AM

Japanese filly is the goods

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In the brief history of the American Oaks, the race has proven to be friendly to horses with foreign backgrounds, even the ones who did not win.

The three winners either began their careers in Europe or invaded from Ireland, and last year a Japanese filly, Dance in the Mood, was a game second.

For Sunday's $750,000 race for 3-year-old fillies, Japan has once again sent a top contender in Cesario, that nation's leading 3-year-old filly.

A winner of 4 of 5 starts and a staggering $2,128,568, Cesario is one of the few entrants in the field of 13 who is proven over the race's distance of 1 1/4 miles. She won a $181,000 allowance race over that distance in January, and the $1.7 million Japanese Oaks over about 1 1/2 miles on turf on May 22.

While Dance in the Mood was favored, Cesario will not have that role this weekend.

The favorite will be Melhor Ainda, the unbeaten winner of three stakes who is trained by Bobby Frankel. She will be making her first start in California, having raced at Belmont Park and Keeneland since the start of her career last fall.

To be ridden by John Velazquez, Melhor Ainda drew post 5, an ideal draw for her stalking style.

Three Degrees, who won the Honeymoon Breeders' Cup Handicap here on June 5, will be well backed. She starts from post 11.

The other 10 fillies will be longshots. There are five fillies from Europe, including Silver Cup, who has won her last four starts, all in Italy. She drew post 7 and will be ridden by Gary Stevens.

Cesario, who breaks from the outside, has a tough post, but deserves consideration. Thursday, she breezed a half-mile in 52 seconds, but the time was somewhat deceptive.

Cesario started slowly at the five-furlong pole, but was not timed for the first furlong. As she reached the turn, she quickened visibly under jockey Yuichi Fukunaga and finished well.

"She came here in good condition," said Toshi Kiyota, the spokesman for trainer Katsuhiko Sumii. "We don't need a fast time to show the horse what the game is here. We want her to be more relaxed."

Cesario is small in stature, but has drawn praise from observers on the Hollywood Park backstretch for her appearance.

Reflective of the sport's popularity in Japan, Cesario has been accompanied by approximately 20 journalists who avidly followed her every move Thursday morning.

Fukunaga, 28, is ranked third in the Japanese standings. He has won four Group 1 races in that country this year, according to Kiyota. He was scheduled to ride his first race in the United States at Hollywood Park on Thursday.