07/20/2006 11:00PM

Japanese horses ascending fast

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NEW YORK - Are we standing at the gates of the golden age of Japanese racing?

Recent events suggest we are. The Sunday Silence-driven improvement of the Japanese Thoroughbred has produced a cornucopia of outstanding horses in recent years. Since 1998, when Seeking the Pearl and Taiki Shuttle became the first Japanese-trained horses to win Group 1 races in Europe, the Japanese Thoroughbred has emerged from his shell and become a force around the world.

In 1999, El Condor Pasa gave Montjeu all he could handle when finishing second in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. A year later, Agnes World won the Group 1 July Cup at Newmarket. In 2001, Agnes Digital, Eishin Preston, and Stay Gold took three of Hong Kong's big international races. Last year, Cesario toyed with 11 international rivals in winning the American Oaks. This winter, Heart's Cry cruised to victory in the Dubai Sheema Classic just an hour after Utopia ran away with the Godolphin Mile. On May 14, Cosmo Bulk won the Singapore Airlines International Cup, and earlier this month, Dance in the Mood had little trouble taking the inaugural running of Hollywood Park's CashCall Mile.

It has also become increasingly difficult to beat the Japanese on their own turf. They have taken six of the last eight runnings of their most important international contest, the Japan Cup, including wins by El Condor Pasa and the world's all-time leading money earner, T.M. Opera O.

And we haven't even mentioned the horse many believe is the best ever produced in Japan, Deep Impact, last year's Japanese Triple Crown winner.

Now the Japanese are on the brink of a major international breakthrough as their two leading horses arrive in Europe for the two most important turf races in the world.

On Sunday, Heart's Cry landed in London to complete preparations for Saturday's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot. The only horse to defeat Deep Impact, in the Arima Kinen at Nakayama last Christmas Day, Heart's Cry is at Luca Cumani's Newmarket yard gearing up for his meeting with Hurricane Run and Electrocutionist in what promises to be the race of the year to date. Meanwhile, Deep Impact will depart Japan for France on Aug. 10 to begin preparations for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Oct. 1.

The most recent International Federation of Horseracing Authorities ratings suggest that a Japanese King George/Arc double is plausible. At 125, Deep Impact is tied with Hurricane Run and Shirocco as the world's highest-rated horse. Heart's Cry is rated at 123, tied for seventh with his fellow Dubai big-race winners David Junior and Electrocutionist. Barbaro, Dylan Thomas, and George Washington are rated at 122.

Yet one cannot help but think that the trainers of Deep Impact and Heart's Cry have taken a misstep in their big-race preparations.

Heart's Cry, trained by Kojiro Hashiguchi, has not run since the Dubai Sheema Classic on March 25. Sending him in a race like the King George on four months' rest is a tall order. Although he won the Sheema Classic on three months' rest, the Sheema Classic cannot be compared to the King George, whose recent winners include Swain, Lammtarra, Daylami, Montjeu, and Galileo.

Whether Hashiguchi has miscalculated will be revealed Saturday.

Some observers blamed the short 1 1/2-furlong stretch at Nakayama for Deep Impact's Arima Kinen loss. A confirmed closer, Deep Impact needs a longer straight to find his best late stride, and he will get it in the Arc at Longchamp, where the stretch is 2 1/2 furlongs, the same as Tokyo, where he won the Japanese Derby last year by two lengths.

Trainer Yasuo Ikee raised eyebrows earlier this month, when he said that Deep Impact would go straight to the Arc without a prep race. That means Deep Impact, whose most recent start came in the Takarazuka Kinen on June 25, will attempt to win what is perhaps the most difficult race in the world off a 14-week absence. No horse has ever won the Arc off such a long layoff. Even the great Generous failed to do so in 1991, when he finished ninth in the Arc off an 11-week break following his seven-length victory in the King George.

Maybe Hashiguchi and Ikee know something the rest of us don't. Maybe if Heart's Cry runs at Ascot like he was in need of a race, Ikee will change his mind and find an Arc prep for Deep Impact. Then again, since both Heart's Cry and Deep Impact like having their races well spaced, Hashiguchi and Ikee just might confound their critics.

Even if they fail there is a new star on the horizon in Meisho Samson, an Opera House colt who will attempt to complete a sweep of the Japanese Triple Crown in the Japanese St. Leger in October.

Japanese racing has not yet reached its apex.