11/21/2007 12:00AM

Migliore revisits Far East

EmailWhen he was 17, it was a very good year, and not just because Richard Migliore was North America's leading apprentice. He also came close to winning the first running of the Japan Cup.

The chart for the 1981 inaugural Japan Cup offers the traditional information that Migliore's mount, The Very One, finished third to victorious Mairzy Doates and Cash Asmussen, with the Canadian horse Frost King splitting the two American mares. Japanese custom also includes the final time of each competitor, which tends to lend a hard edge to the bitter truths of horse racing. The Very One, although beaten a conclusive 2 1/2 lengths, arrived at the line just four-tenths of a second later than the winner.

When you're 17 and on a roll, the memories of such moments linger. Competing in a race like the Japan Cup is heady stuff. Losing it by less than half a second makes the story downright operatic.

"It was a very roughly run race," Migliore recalled last weekend, between races at Hollywood Park. "The pace was extremely fast, like 22 and 45, and Cash and I were way at the back.

"At the half, the local horses started to stop," Migliore went on. "And I mean stop. They created some big jam-ups. And then at the quarter pole the rest of them stopped. I remember picking my way through, while Cash went around. I made it through, but I did get hampered along the way. I remember feeling really bad about it, thinking that maybe if I'd had a clear run I could have won it."

As it turned out, Migliore got a lesson in perspective from a pretty good source. Bill Shoemaker, who finished fourth aboard P'Tite Tete for Bobby Frankel, told the young New Yorker to count his blessings.

"That was a rough one, kid," Shoemaker said. "We're lucky to get out of that one alive."

Migliore was riding that first Japan Cup courtesy of his mentor and contract-holder, trainer Steve DiMauro.

"For me it was an amazing experience," Migliore said. "I'd never really traveled much as a kid - maybe Fire Island or Sunken Meadow - and Japan was about as far away from Long Island as you could get. Then to be sitting with someone like Shoemaker, talking about a rough race we'd both just survived. I hope I appreciated it as much as I should have."

History will note that the Eclipse Awards for jockeys of 1981 went to the 50-year-old journeyman Shoemaker and the teenage apprentice Migliore. Nearly 5,000 winners later, Migliore gets another crack at a prestigious Japanese racing prize on Saturday when he rides the Pacific Classic winner, Student Council, in the $2.4 million Japan Cup Dirt (televised Friday on TVG at 9:30 p.m. Pacific time).

The Japan Cup itself will be run for the 27th time on Sunday, but Migliore does not have a mount. He will linger for the race, though, and perhaps ride on the Japan Cup card, while rooting for another American teenager, 17-year-old Joe Talamo, to take the big one aboard Artiste Royal.

While the Japan Cup has become an international institution, the Japan Cup Dirt is a creature of the 21st century and has yet to produce a winner of serious stature. Six of the seven winners have been based in Japan, while the seventh was Fleetstreet Dancer, a former American claimer trained by Doug O'Neill. Migliore tried to win the 2002 Japan Cup Dirt with New York allowance winner Abreeze, but they finished up the track in a race run right-handed at Nakayama, while Tokyo Race Course was undergoing renovations.

"The thing I remember best about that trip was waking up at the hotel the morning of the race, and looking outside to see thousands of people lining up in the street, waiting to get into the Tokyo Dome," Migliore said. "They were having a going-away party for Hideki Matsui, who had just signed with the Yankees. I didn't go, but I did buy some baseball cards for my son, Joey, and one of them was Matsui's Tokyo Giants card. Now that's cool."

This time around, astride Student Council for trainer Vladimir Cerin, Migliore appears to have considerably more firepower. The rider can't wait to get his long-winded partner into a high gallop going 2,100 meters left-handed around the massive dirt strip at Tokyo Race Course.

"I absolutely believe the path through the winner's circle is through him," Migliore said. "He's so good right now, his confidence level is so high, and he handled the trip over there like a champ. He weighed 1,200 pounds when he left here, got to quarantine, galloped a few days, breezed a half-mile, and when they weighed him again he was 1,226 pounds. You go that way, and you're in good shape."

In their most recent collaboration, Migliore and Student Council won the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

"He's got such a great mind, even with 100,000 people I'm not worried about him freaking out," Migliore said. "He's cool as a cucumber, and he lets me do whatever I want to do."

As if he needs further motivation, a share of a $900,000 bonus awaits Migliore if Student Council can complete the Pacific Classic-Japan Cup Dirt double.

"Let's do it - I'm on a mission," Migliore said. "Show me the yen."