05/30/2004 12:00AM

King Kamehameha best in Japanese Derby


Tokyo, Japan - King Kamehameha put his name in the record books with an eye-catching performance in the Japanese Derby at Tokyo Racecourse on Sunday.

In winning the Derby, at $3 million the richest race in the world for 3-year-olds, the 8-5 son of Kingmambo covered the mile and a half on turf in 2:23.30, setting a record for the new two-year-old Tokyo track and coming within 1.1 seconds of Horlicks' Japan Cup mark set on the old course. Bred in Japan by Northern Farm and named for an ancient Hawaiian ruler, King Kamehameha was winning for the fourth time in a row and has now won six of his seven lifetime starts for earnings of $4.1 million.

His victory before 122,074 fans is a personal triumph for trainer Kunihide Matsuda, who came into this Derby, or Tokyo Yushun as it is officially called, fresh off last Sunday's Japanese Oaks win with Daiwa El Cielo. Moreover, he did in defiance of conventional training methods.

On February 29 Matsuda had saddled King Kamehameha to win a 1 3/8-mile allowance. He then dropped him in distance to take the 1 1/4-mile Grade 3 Mainichi Hai on March 27, then dropped him in distance again to win the Grade 1 NHK Mile Cup on May 9.

The reverse route followed by King Kamahameha didn't faze him in the least. Rider Katsumi Ando kept him in mid-pack early, then made a bold move on the turn with eventual third Higher Game. The winner hit the front at the quarter pole, soon disposed of Higher Game and had no trouble holding off the late challenge of runner-up Heart's Cry, who was beaten by 1 1/2 lengths.

The form looks solid as the first three were all coming out of victories, Heart's Cry in the 1 3/8-mile Grade 2 Kyoto Shimbun Hai while Higher Game had landed the Grade 2 Tokyo Hai Aoba Sho over the Derby course and distance.

Matsuda will give King Kamahameha the summer off, but is contemplating an eventual foreign campaign for him, if not this autumn, then next. He runs with blinkers and four bandages, but this year the horse with the name of an old Hawaiian king has emerged as the 3-year-old Thoroughbred king of Japan.

*Island Fashion, America's representative in next Sunday's one-mile Grade 1 Yasuda Kinen, arrived in Japan in good order early Friday morning. She is currently at the Shiroi quarantine center and will arrive at Tokyo Racecourse on Wednesday. Though she will be facing males on turf for the first time in her career, Island Fashion is certainly not out of her depth in the $1.6 million Yasuda Kinen, even with local Grade 1 winners Lohengrin, Telegnosis and recent Grade 2 Keio Hai Spring Cup winner Win Radius in the lineup. Her trainer Mauricio Polanco will be here in Tokyo to give Kent Desormeaux a leg up on Sunday.