11/24/2005 1:00AM

Long time between Santoris for U.S.

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Unless the temperamental Better Talk Now can shake off a bad Breeders' Cup and revert to his very best form, or King's Drama can step his admirable game up a notch or so, the drought for American-trained horses in the world's richest grass race figures to continue.

The Japan Cup, with its purse of 476 million yen, is a lip-smacking temptation on the far side of the world that has been an international prize worth winning since 1981. Depending on your point of view, 476 million yen buys about the same amount of stuff as 3.4 million euro or 26.8 million Norwegian kroner. For purposes of the American connections, it's a nice round $4 million, with $2.1 million and change to the winner.

That has proved enough incentive for a fairly steady stream of American participation in the Japan Cup through the years. And through the first decade if its existence, the Yanks fared well.

Mairzy Doates and The Very One, a pair of American-trained mares, finished first and third in 1981. In 1982, Bert and Diana Firestone's Half Iced saved the day for the USA when heavily favored John Henry, a victim of colic during quarantine, finished up the track.

Bobby Frankel became the first California-based trainer to take the Cup in 1988 with Ed Gann's Pay the Butler. Not to be outdone, Charlie Whittingham followed suit in 1991 with Golden Pheasant for Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky.

But since then . . . zip. And some very good horses have tried, including Breeders' Cup Turf winner Fraise, Arlington Million winners Awad and Star of Cozzene, the marathon mare Maxzene, and versatile Sandpit. In fact, in the past 13 runnings, there have been only three American runners who have come close.

In 1993, there was Kotashaan, fresh from victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf, finishing second when Kent Desormeaux misjudged the finish post and stopped riding a few jumps too soon.

In 1994, Breeders' Cup Mile winner Paradise Creek stretched his considerable class the full 2,400 meters and lost by a heartbreaking nose to Japan's Marvelous Crown.

The most recent near-miss came in 2002. With Tokyo Race Course undergoing a massive renovation, the Cup that year was offered for the one and only time at Nakayama Race Course, located in the city of Funabashi, which is just east of the Tokyo metropolis on Tokyo Bay.

Sarafan, owned by Gary Tanaka and trained by Neil Drysdale, was the lone American horse in the race. And he was in it to the end, despite a bumping incident not far from the finish between Falbrav, who finished first under Frankie Dettori, and runner-up Sarafan, who was ridden by Corey Nakatani. The margin was a nose.

In America, the only requirement for a claim of foul is an aggrieved party, whether it be owner, trainer, or jockey. Japanese racing rules require a claimant to put up a fee, in keeping with the official philosophy that if the stewards do not see a possible foul, it probably didn't happen. The Sarafan camp thought otherwise.

"I put in for a claim of foul, and I was told it would cost me 30,000 yen," Drysdale explained. "So you have to do a quick calculation, and you come to realize that it's about $300. And it's a $2 million purse."

It seemed like a worthwhile investment.

"Yes, but I did turn to Tanaka and say that it looked like it would be his $300," Drysdale added.

The protest was not allowed. Sarafan had to settle for second, and the American drought continued.

The good news is that Sarafan is still among us, training with Drysdale at Hollywood Park for yet another comeback. Had he won that 2002 Japan Cup, his place in racing history would have been secure. As it is, the old boy, coming age 9, must be content with a reputation for well-traveled honesty and durability as one of only a handful of horses who have competed in Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East, while winning more than $2.4 million. Second money of about $800,000 in the Japan Cup was by far his biggest payday.

Sarafan was last seen in public being vanned back to the barn after the Del Mar Handicap on Aug. 26, his 47th start.

"He got struck into that day - whether he hit himself or another horse did it - but there was a big old mark on the right ankle," Drysdale said. "It was swollen, and you could see the imprint of the shoe where it hit. But fortunately he was walking sound by the time he was back to the barn."

Sound and now ready to go again, if his recent behavior is any indication. Sarafan was good enough to finish first in the restricted Escondido Handicap at Del Mar (he lost it on a disqualification), and he could have run at the current Hollywood meet had the grass course been available. Look for him this winter at Santa Anita.

"He's happy, and so full of himself," Drysdale said, "bucking and playing every morning when he goes out. He's been so much fun to be around. I'd have to say he's still got some good races in him."