08/10/2004 12:00AM

Tanaka buys a lot, but Epalo may be the one

Benoit & Associates
Elke Schutz, wife of trainer Andreas Schutz, rides the German-bred Epalo at Arlington.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - It was late winter turning to this past spring, and Gary Tanaka was hot on the trail of a German horse he wanted to buy. That was no surprise. Tanaka snaps Thoroughbreds off the international market like so many bags of snacks hanging by the checkout.

The animal in question was named Epalo, no star last year, but an improving 4-year-old then.

"The previous owner was hemming and hawing, until finally, he put him on the marketplace," Tanaka said.

Tanaka got his horse, and he might have bought an Arlington Million winner. Epalo arrived at Arlington from his base in Cologne, Germany, late last week; Saturday, he will try to give Tanaka his first Million victory. Tanaka, who spoke from London on a conference call Tuesday, has won two of the last four runnings of the Beverly D. - with Golden Apples (2002) and Snow Polina (2000) - and has a French filly named Aubonne for that race Saturday. He would love to win the Million, which might already have happened, had Falcon Flight not gotten into a late-stretch traffic jam in 2002.

Falcon Flight was a decent horse in a sub-standard Million. How Epalo rates remains obscure. His lone Group 1 victory came three months ago in the Singapore Cup, but there is the sense that Epalo's best is yet to come - and that it could start coming Saturday. Both Tanaka and Andreas Schutz, who has trained the horse since he was 2, describe Epalo as tailor-made for the Million. His ideal trip is 2,000 meters - the Million's 1 1/4 miles. He is a horse happiest on American-style firm turf. And this is no European plodder.

"He's very quick from the gates, at least for a European," Schutz, the 36-year-old son of the famed German horseman Bruno Schutz, said Tuesday morning at Arlington. "He'll be somewhere with the pace, second or third, but if the pace is slow, he can take the lead."

Epalo's athleticism comes packaged in a powerful frame, but owner and trainer say he is lazy at work. So, instead of breezing, Epalo races into shape. Two weeks before the May 16 Singapore Cup, he ran in a listed stakes in Munich, and on Aug. 1, at his home base in Cologne, Epalo finished second in a listed stakes - essentially his final work for the Million.

Epalo has been a long-term project. Schutz started him once at age 2, in August of 2001, and Epalo finished fourth. Still, Schutz recalled, "I thought he could make a [Epsom] Derby horse."

But Epalo's talent was trapped inside an immature body, and at 3, still unprepared for top-level competition, Schutz kept him with listed-stakes horses, waiting for Epalo to mature.

"The German horses develop later," Tanaka said. "They get better at 4 and 5."

They also like Arlington. The German horse Silvano, trained by Andreas Wohler, won the race in 2001, the same year Schutz sent Caitano out to a fourth-place finish. Last year, Wohler came to the Million with Paolini, who wound up second.

Epalo might have the class of a Silvano; it's too early to tell. Epalo won the Singapore Cup by five lengths, but Schutz cautioned: "We shouldn't overestimate his run in Singapore. We don't know how good those horses were."

"I'm hoping this could be his year," said Schutz. "Last year, before we realized how good he was, we wasted some starts. This year, we've avoided that. We're just looking for the big run."

Like Wohler, Schutz won't limit his horizons to European racing. Epalo already has been to Turkey and Singapore, and Schutz said he has penciled in a September trip to Belmont for the Grade 1 Man o' War. Later in the season, Epalo could journey to Australia, Hong Kong, or Japan for Group 1 races.

"You have to follow the money," said Schutz.

Tanaka, who buys and runs his horses worldwide, would agree.

And a million dollars is a nice, round number.