02/21/2008 1:00AM

Sport can be a series of trials


ARCADIA, Calif. - Gary Tanaka, owner of such racing champions as Rakti, Gourmet Girl, and Golden Apples, can be forgiven if he has lost all faith in the American legal system, at least the part about speedy and public trials (see U.S. Constitution, Amendment Six).

It has been 33 months since the low-key Tanaka, 64, was indicted by the federal government, along with his flamboyant partner Alberto Vilar, on charges that they improperly used a client's funds from their New York-based company, Amerindo Investment Advisors. That's 33 months since the news of his indictment wrecked his company and started the clock on what is turning out to be a bottomless pit of legal fees. That's 33 months - a longer sentence than what was handed to Michael Vick and Martha Stewart combined.

Since May of 2005, a long line of trial dates has been scheduled and postponed for Tanaka, leading any neutral observer to conclude that the feds don't have much of a case. Investigators and federal attorneys who put the original indictment together have come and gone, and a second judge is now presiding. More recently, Tanaka's bail was reduced to $8 million ("from obscene to 10 percent less than obscene," in his words), and Tanaka's official court-ordered status has gone from house arrest in his son's Manhattan apartment to "quarantined."

"That means I no longer have to wear electronic monitoring, and I can go anywhere as long as I'm home by 11 p.m.," Tanaka said on Thursday. "Before, I was restricted going out just three hours a day and keeping to the five boroughs of New York. That included Belmont Park and Aqueduct, but for some reason the feds thought the tracks were too close to JFK airport, and that I might be a flight risk."

For Tanaka, the idea of heading for Belmont Park sometime this spring is sweet. For a blessed change, Tanaka can drink in the sight of its ivy-covered red brick facade and savor the memory of such victories as the Met Mile and the Vosburgh with Pico Central, the Man o' War with Millkom, the Mother Goose with Dreams Gallore. Those he got to see.

Tanaka at least has been able to continue his horse racing enterprises, providing some distraction from his plight. Then came an unexpected snag when, before the Hollywood Turf Cup last December, his Gran Premio di Milano winner Sudan was caught up in a medication rule violation. In this case, justice was swift. When the stewards learned that Sudan had not received his bleeder medication four hours before the race, he was scratched. There was no opportunity for appeal.

Tanaka, feeling helpless from afar, contends that Hollywood Park should be liable for the mix-up, since Sudan was under the supervision of its representatives (as well as a traveling lass working for trainer Michael Jarvis) and that the track should at least refund entry fees and a portion of shipping costs from England. The issue is still up in the air.

In the meantime, Sudan is back in the entries Saturday at Santa Anita and among the contenders for the $150,000 San Luis Obispo Handicap, which will be run over 1 1/2 miles on turf. If any horse deserves a nice, uneventful journey from stall to starting gate, it's this guy.

After winning the big one in Milan last June, with Frankie Dettori on board, Sudan was sent to Sweden for the Stockholm Cup International in early September. Somehow, someone forgot to mark the package express mail.

"He ended up going by the longest possible way around," Tanaka said. "Up through Germany, then Denmark, then a ferry across to Sweden. By the time he got there, he was really stressed out. He bled badly in the race," and was practically eased. "After that, Michael thought that he might have a future in America, where he could be treated with Lasix. That's when we pointed him to the Turf Cup."

Oh, bitter irony. Anyway, Sudan has been under the thumb of Bobby Frankel and his crew since December, and a good effort in the San Luis Obispo could position this chestnut son of Peintre Celebre for some of the nation's top distance races on the grass as the season unfolds. Tanaka has had a flock of good ones in that category through the years, including Single Empire, King's Drama, Passinetti, Pellegrino, Sarafan, and Dernier Empereur.

"I don't see why he can't do very well on some of the big, flat American grass courses, like Belmont in particular," Tanaka said. "Before I bought him, he had run very good races to Rail Link, the Arc winner. And in one of those races" - the 2006 Grand Prix de Paris - "he missed second by a short head to Red Rocks, the Breeders' Cup winner."

As usual, Tanaka will be forced to appreciate Sudan's performance from a distance. The good news is, a trial date has been set for July 14. But the bad news - and it seems there is always bad news - is that last week federal attorneys asked for still another postponement, this time until September.

"By then, it will be just a few months away from being 2009," Tanaka said with a sigh. "The feds simply do not like to lose, and it's apparent they think this case is a loser. All I want is that day in court."