11/25/2005 12:00AM

Local hero's trainer bowing to tradition


TOKYO - On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji from the grandstand at Tokyo Racecourse, but the hazy weather in the region this past week has made it as difficult to view the fabled mountain as it will be to see increasingly fabled Deep Impact on the racetrack in Sunday's Japan Cup.

Impossible, in fact, as Deep Impact will await the Arima Kinen on Dec. 25 at Nakayama before attempting to improve on an undefeated record that has made him only the second unbeaten winner of the Japanese Triple Crown in history.

The decision of trainer Yazuo Ikee to skip Japan's most important international event with a horse who is already approaching legendary status among his legions of supporters is a bitter pill for the Japan Racing Association to swallow, but it must be seen in the context of Japanese racing.

In bypassing the Japan Cup in favor of the Arima Kinen, Deep Impact will be running next in what had been, until the early years of the 26-year-old Japan Cup, Japan's season-ending championship event.

The 1 9/16-mile Arima Kinen's subtitle is Grand Prix, or Great Prize. As such it still possesses greater cachet with many of Japanese racing's traditionalists, in spite of the Japan Cup's international reputation and its larger purse.

Moreover, only two Japanese-trained 3-year-old colts, El Condor Pasa and Jungle Pocket, have ever won the Japan Cup. Because Deep Impact has never raced against older horses, Ikee has, perhaps wisely, decided to delay his debut against his elders when it will be limited to Japanese horses, rather than the international competition he would have faced Sunday in the Japan Cup.

In the long run, this may be the best thing for Deep Impact, for whom plans to run in next year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe are in the works.

A member of the great Sunday Silence's next-to-last crop, Deep Impact has been compared to the other undefeated winner of the Japanese Triple Crown, Symboli Rudolf, since he won the Japanese Derby in June by four handy lengths. It may be that Ikee was influenced in his decision to withhold Deep Impact from the Japan Cup by Symboli Rudolf's third-place finish in his 3-year-old attempt in that race. A year later, a more experienced Symboli Rudolf returned to take the Cup.

El Condor Pasa, however, was successful in his 3-year-old Japan Cup in 1998. A year later he was sent to France in June to prepare for the Arc, in which he ultimately finished second by just a half-length to none other than Montjeu, this season's sensational first-year sire.

The reverence with which Japanese racing fans already hold Deep Impact is like nothing we can imagine in the Western world. His fans are expected to begin lining up at Nakayama Racecourse for the Arima Kinen at least a week before the race, just to get the best possible viewing location. When he won the Kikuka Sho, or Japanese St. Leger, on Oct. 23, he was sent off as the 0-1 favorite. That is not a misprint, Deep Impact was so heavily backed that, to avoid a loss pool, the Japan Racing Association could return only the stakes of those who had successfully bet on him to win.

A consummate athlete who generally comes from somewhere near the back of the pack, Deep Impact has a gliding action that enables him to conserve as much energy as possible for his patented late runs. His appearance in the Arima Kinen will be a table-setter for a 4-year-old campaign that his admirers hope will promote him into the ranks currently inhabited only by the postwar likes of Ribot, Sea-Bird, and Secretariat.