06/27/2006 12:00AM

Japanese return to the scene

Dance in the Mood makes her first U.S. start since 2004 when she runs in Saturday's CashCall Mile.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The inability of Japanese-based horses to be competitive in top American races ended emphatically last summer, when Cesario dominated the American Oaks at Hollywood Park.

Cesario became the first Japanese-bred and Japanese-trained horse to win a Grade 1 race in the United States. The victory earned Cesario so much respect that she was nominated for the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding turf female from only the one American race.

This weekend, the Japanese are back in California in search of further stakes glory. Two Japanese-based runners will start in major turf stakes at Hollywood Park, and both could easily take home another lucrative prize.

On Saturday, Dance in the Mood, who was second in the 2004 American Oaks, starts in the $750,000 CashCall Mile for fillies and mares. Sunday, Asahi Rising starts against a small field in the $750,000 American Oaks.

The success of Cesario inspired owner Masamitsu Terauchi and trainer Masaaki Koga to send Asahi Rising to Hollywood for the American Oaks.

"She has good speed like Cesario, so we decided to try it," Koga said. "People expect her to do well."

Unlike last year, there has not been a standout 3-year-old filly in Japan this year. Different fillies finished in the top three of the 1000 Guineas in April and the Japanese Oaks in May. Last year, Cesario finished second by a head in the 1000 Guineas before winning the Japanese Oaks. In the American Oaks, she took a commanding lead on the final turn and pulled clear to win by four lengths.

Asahi Rising's form is not as strong as Cesario's. Asahi Rising was third in the Japanese Oaks on May 21 at Tokyo Racecourse, losing by a length to Kawakami Princess as a 17-1 outsider in a field of 18. Asahi Rising was always near the front, took the lead with a furlong remaining, and was caught late. Since that race was at 1 1/2 miles, Koga said he believes that Asahi Rising will be suited to the American Oaks distance of 1 1/4 miles.

"This is her best distance, in the middle," Koga said. "For a 3-year-old, she's very quiet. She's more mature than the trainer."

Koga, 41, began training earlier this year after spending 10 years as an assistant to Kazuo Fujisawa, the trainer of Dance in the Mood. Asahi Rising gave Koga his first stakes win in the $304,000 Anemone Stakes at about a mile at Nakayama in March. Koga has a 20-horse stable.

To gain a local advantage, the Japanese trainers have hired jockey Victor Espinoza to ride both fillies. Espinoza is in a duel with Patrick Valenzuela for the title of leading rider at Hollywood Park.

"We want to have the best jockey," said Nobutaka Tada, a spokesman for Fujisawa. "Victor came to Japan to ride for us years ago. We have a good relationship."

For Fujisawa, winning a stakes at Hollywood Park is unfinished business. Dance in the Mood was the 7-5 favorite in the 2004 American Oaks and finished a length behind the locally based Ticker Tape. It was a tough day for Dance in the Mood's backers. Jockey Yutaka Take had Dance in the Mood on the inside for much of the race and could not get clear on the final turn. Dance in the Mood closed ground in the stretch, but that only made the final margin closer.

"It happens in racing," Tada said of the disappointing trip. "She was the best horse, that's for sure. We want to show people how good she is."

Since the 2004 American Oaks, Dance in the Mood has one victory in 14 starts, the $1.56 million Victoria Mile at Tokyo Racecourse last month. The Victoria Mile was a Grade 1 against fillies and mares at about a mile. It was an important win, one that proved she was still effective in top company.

In the last two years, it was easy to have doubts. Although she raced frequently against males in the last two years, Dance in the Mood had spotty form, which was partly due to a loss of interest in racing, according to Tada.

"She was acting different," Tada said. "At some stage, she didn't like racing. She wasn't happy. It happens with fillies sometimes. Now she likes running and training. Time off helped. She matured."

While prize money is higher in Japan, Tada said there is prestige attached to winning a major American stakes.

"It's easy to come here," Tada said. "The purse money compared to Japan is not as much, but we like it here."

The Japanese team will like U.S. racing even more if they return home with a trophy in their luggage.