07/05/2005 12:00AM

Japanese fulfill impossible dream

Cesario scored what once would have been considered an unthinkable feat by decisively beating America's best fillies in the American Oaks.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Norihiko Kishimoto began weeping for joy at about the furlong marker of last Sunday's $750,000 , and by all accounts he has yet to stop.

Good for him.

As assistant trainer and all-around spark plug of the Katsuhiko Sumii stable, Kishimoto had every right to wear his heart on the sleeve of his sharp brown suit. Cesario, the light of his life, had just made Thoroughbred racing history by winning the American Oaks. Her four-length victory over the rock solid American-based favorite, Melhor Ainda, was not only the single best performance on grass in California this year, it also marked the first major North American race ever won by a horse both bred and trained in Japan.

In order to remotely appreciate such an achievement, it is necessary to turn back the clock to 1881, when the American-bred and -owned colt Iroquois won the Epsom Derby, then considered the racing world's foremost test. At the time, the American sport was considered inferior by its British cousins, and American-grown horses were viewed with suspicion. When news of the victory by Iroquois reached the States, the celebration was so wild that trading was temporarily suspended on the New York Stock Exchange.

Need something a little more contemporary? Try Cigar, in March 1996, when he journeyed halfway around the world to win the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup. As a stranger in a strange land, Cigar proved that the long trip and the foreign surroundings made no difference. Back home in the U.S., thousands of Cigar fans showed up at local racetracks to watch the early morning Dubai telecast, and overnight, the race became symbolic of American world dominance in main-track racing.

It must be noted, however, that Iroquois was trained from the beginning of his career in England by Jacob Pincus, one of America's leading horsemen. Iroquois may have hailed from Kentucky, but by the time he won at Epsom, he was very much a British racing product.

As for Cigar, the Dubai World Cup was designed at 1 1/4 miles on the dirt with American horses in mind, and he was the best American horse of his time. His victory was a remarkable achievement - as was the effort of the narrowly beaten Soul of the Matter - but it was no surprise.

Cesario, on the other hand, is a product of a racing and breeding industry whose viable modern history dates back barely a quarter of a century. As recently as the 1970's, the Japanese product was far from ready for international prime time. When the Japan Cup was introduced in 1981, the home team was swamped in the first two runnings, finished second in 1983, then finally broke through with a victory by Katsuragi Ace in 1984.

Since then, a few ambitious Japanese owners have left their safe shores to try for international prizes. More often than not, the results turned out like Ski Captain (14th in the 1995 Kentucky Derby) or Taiki Blizzard, who was up the track in back-to-back runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Lately, Japanese horses have begun to make an international impact. El Condor Pasa, winner of the 1998 Japan Cup, was a brave second in the 1998 Arc de Triomphe. That same season, Taiki Shuttle won a pair of major French sprints, while Agnes Digital ventured from Japan to win the 2001 Hong Kong Cup. Even Personal Rush, who showed up at Lone Star decked out in bright pink trappings for the 2004 Breeders' Cup Classic, earned begrudging praise for his sixth-place finish to Ghostzapper.

It was Cesario - the granddaughter of Sunday Silence named for the male alter ego of a Shakespearean heroine - who broke through once and for all on the American scene.

"I loved her looks," said Ron McAnally, a neutral observer Sunday as Cesario entered the paddock, pulling her groom. "She's tall and leggy, but she's not heavy, so she doesn't have to be hard on herself."

McAnally had a shot at a breakthrough Japanese horse as far back as 1986, when he was sent Japanese Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year Symboli Rudolph. Unfortunately, the 5-year-old Symboli Rudolph was past his peak and was able to run only once in California, finishing sixth in the San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita.

"He really looked the part," McAnally said. "I have no doubt that he could have won here if he had been right."

Cesario was nothing less than breathtaking in her utter dominance of the American Oaks, a tribute not only to a breeding industry come of age but also to the care and preparation by her trainer.

Last October, Sumii spent several weeks as a guest of the Neil Drysdale stable at Hollywood Park, observing the routines of the English-born Hall of Famer.

"Neil, of course, takes care of his horses very well," Sumii said, with interpretive help from Japanese television producer Hiro Goda. "But I think a key factor in his training is caring for the mental attitude of his horses. He wants them to enjoy their work.

"And spending the time at Hollywood Park also helped me a lot for this trip," Sumii added. "Although I certainly was not thinking about winning the American Oaks at the time."

In the end, it was not such a wild idea after all.