06/05/2002 11:00PM

Sunday Break brings it on home

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Sunday Break, one of the favorites for the Belmont, completes an odyssey begun by his sire, Forty Niner. The Belmont was the only race of the 1988 Triple Crown that Forty Niner didn't run in, and he now stands in Japan. But here in 2002, his Japanese-bred son Sunday Break has perhaps the best chance of upsetting heavy favorite War Emblem.

This is not Forty Niner's only connection to the third classic, as he is the sire of Belmont winner Editor's Note, who won in 1996, and that was also the year that Forty Niner led the American sire list. Unfortunately for American breeders, Forty Niner, a 17-year-old son of Mr. Prospector, had previously been sold to the Japanese Bloodstock Breeders Association, and the JBBA stands Forty Niner at its Shizunai Stallion Station on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Not surprisingly, his offspring have rarely been returned to this country.

Instead, the flow of Forty Niner's stock has mostly been the other way, with Japanese breeders picking up some very nice horses by Forty Niner. When he emerged as a good sire of young stallions, breeders in Japan also acquired Forty Niner's most successful son at stud, End Sweep, and took him to stand on Hokkaido.

No offspring by Forty Niner had come out of Japan to rival his American-bred stock until the arrival of Sunday Break.

The North Hills Management of Koji Maeda bred Sunday Break, and Maeda raised the colt at his North Hills Farm on Hokkaido. Maeda sent Sunday Break to Neil Drysdale for training in the United States, and the colt has done all of his racing in his sire's homeland. From seven starts, Sunday Break has won four, with his best victory coming in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes on May 25. The colt was also a close third in the Wood Memorial and would have started in the Kentucky Derby. A shortage of graded-stakes earnings, however, denied him a spot in the classic at Churchill Downs.

Maeda's approach to racing Sunday Break is contrary to the typical program that Japanese owners take with their stock. Usually, a horse has to establish itself as one of the best in Japan before it is taken abroad to test international competition. As a result, racing people rarely find an opportunity to inspect Japanese racers, except for the occasional champion or near-champion who ventures abroad for a major international event.

The top-tier racing in Japan, however, is all on turf, and Forty Niner, despite all his fine qualities as a sire, has not made a great impression as a sire of turf runners. In light of this it should be no surprise that Forty Niner's record in Japan has been no match for his production in this country.

Doubtless recognizing this dilemma, Maeda sent Sunday Break to the United States so that he could race on dirt courses from the beginning. Maeda also chose to send the colt to Drysdale, who had succeeded in winning the Kentucky Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus for Japanese businessman Fusao Sekiguchi. Now that Maeda's choice has worked out so well, we may see more and more of Forty Niner's offspring brought here for racing.

Although Sunday Break is the first top horse that Maeda has sent to the United States, he is not the only high-class racer Maeda has bred. Sunday Break is the fourth foal out of the Storm Cat mare Catequil. Her first offspring was the top-class Japanese filly Phalaenopsis, who won three Group 1 races in Japan: the Oka Sho, Shuka Sho, and Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup. By Forty Niner's contemporary Brian's Time, Phalaenopsis was Japan's champion 3-year-old filly and champion older mare. She earned more than $3.8 million from seven victories in 16 starts.

Her dam, Catequil, was sold to Japan after an unsuccessful racing career for Sheikh Mohammed in England. Purchased for $50,000 (Canadian) from breeder Windfields Farm at the Canadian Breeders September sale in 1991, Catequil managed only a third place from two starts. Her full sister is the stakes winner Ocean Cat, and they are out of Pacific Princess. A winner of the Delaware Oaks and Hempstead Handicap, Pacific Princess was one of the best daughters of Damascus.

Japanese breeders took interest in this family because the first daughter of Pacific Princess, the Northern Dancer mare Pacificus, became a landmark producer in Japanese breeding. Pacificus, a winner in England, proved much more a star with her offspring in Japan. She produced two horses of the year in Japan, Narita Brian and Biwa Takehide.

This pair proved exceptional champions, classic winners, and huge money-earners in the early to mid-1990's. So when Catequil became available, she naturally went to stud in Japan.