01/11/2007 12:00AM

In limbo, Tanaka watches and waits

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - One of the leading owners of the current Santa Anita meet could try to win his third stakes since New Year's Eve with a French colt named Hello Sunday in the $200,000 San Fernando on Saturday.

As has become his custom, however, Gary Tanaka must send his regrets. Under a bizarre form of federal house arrest since May of 2005, Tanaka will be relying on the HRTV satellite feed piped into his son's Manhattan apartment, where he must remain for all but the few hours he is allowed in public each week to keep legal and medical appointments and perform personal errands.

One of racing's most successful international owners - his runners have included North American champions Gourmet Girl and Golden Apples as well as champion European miler Rakti - Tanaka enjoyed a solid year in 2006, winning $2.4 million in the U.S. with 21 of 99 starters, among them the stakes winners Star Parade, King's Drama, Noble Stella, and Pellegrino.

"Enjoyed" is probably not the right word. Tanaka, 63, has never been the kind of owner to spend hours at the barn and hang with the morning railbirds. But he dearly loves the racing - both in America and Europe - and he has been a familiar face in the paddock for nearly every significant event that included one of his horses. Now, he can't even go to an OTB.

Tanaka and his former partner Albert Vilar have been charged with misappropriation of investor funds through their company, Amerindo. The investor in question is Lily Cates Naify, widow of prominent racehorse owner Marshall Naify. They were married for a year before Naify's death in 2000.

Tanaka has been ready for his day in court for more than a year, but federal prosecutors have continued to ask for and receive postponements. The most recent trial date of Jan. 8 was changed again, this time to mid-May, according to Tanaka.

"The news keeps getting worse and worse, until it turns," Tanaka said this week from - where else? - his son's Manhattan apartment.

"I think the problem is that the Justice Department has unlimited funding, and they're not accountable," he continued. "They can put 25 guys on a single case, just because they want to win. As we see it, the feds overreacted to a complaint from one of our longtime private investors [Cates Naify]. But I think they're having difficulties building their case around this particular star witness."

Even those who resist feeling sympathetic toward Tanaka must recoil at the idea of a highly restrictive, two-year house arrest while out on bail of $10 million. Even allegations of white-collar crime deserve a speedy trial. Tanaka is American through and through, born in a WWII internment camp in Idaho, but authorities clearly view him as a flight risk since he has a residence in England, where his wife and children live.

Isolated from his family, Tanaka finds some small solace in the ongoing success of his horses. At the current meet, King's Drama, trained by Bobby Frankel, took the San Gabriel Handicap, while Dixie Meister won the San Pasqual for Julio Canani and will now point for a race in Dubai this March.

"Julio's a clever guy," Tanaka said. "He's the kind of trainer who can plan races way down the pike. I suggested that maybe he'd like to find a race in between now and Dubai. But he said no, he'd like to go in on works. That's the kind of thing Charlie would do."

Charlie, being Whittingham, mentor of both Neil Drysdale and the late Rodney Rash, trainers responsible for such Tanaka stakes winners as Single Empire, Blues Traveller, Millkom, Sarafan, and Party Cited. Nearly all of Tanaka's success has come with purchasing older runners who have already proven some level of ability.

Such a horse is Hello Sunday, formerly with Criquette Head-Maarek and now trained by Frankel. Hello Sunday has drawn post 12 of 12 for his American debut in the 1 1/16-mile San Fernando. If he starts - if Frankel decides to swallow the tough post - Hello Sunday will be making his first start on dirt after a French career of 3 wins from 11 outings.

Hello Sunday is a son of the Sadler's Wells stallion Poliglote who was good enough to win a Group 3 race at Deauville last summer. When pitched against the best of his generation for previous owners, Hello Sunday was beaten just under five lengths in the French Derby.

"He worked well on the All Along all-weather track at Chantilly," Tanaka said, making a case for Hello Sunday's main-track conversion. "Next year in California, with Santa Anita going to a synthetic-type surface, it would be less of a gamble. So we'll see. At least it's interesting to try."

In the meantime, Tanaka hardly dares to hope that he will finally get his day in court come this May.

"I can only keep my fingers crossed," he said. "But I can't keep it uppermost in my thoughts, because I don't want to be disappointed. And in the end you're at the mercy of 12 jurors."