02/28/2002 1:00AM

Tanaka's American experience


ARCADIA, Calif. - In February 2001, President Bill Clinton signed an order that turned Gary Tanaka's birthplace into a national monument. This alone would make him unique among the owners who have a horse running on Saturday in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.

Normally, such an honor is reserved for political leaders or military heroes. High schoolers take field trips to national monuments. Tour books list them at length. Mount Vernon is a national monument. So is Monticello.

And now, so is Minidoka, a World War II Japanese-American internment camp that sat on 950 acres, 20 miles northeast of Twin Falls, Idaho. Gary Tanaka was born there on June 23, 1943. For the first 2 1/2 years of his life, his home was a tar paper barracks, bereft of insulation or running water, heated by coal stoves. He was there because his parents, who had owned a poultry business in Seattle, were considered security risks by a U.S. government hard at war.

More than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent were imprisoned in camps scattered around the western states during World War II. Reparations to the tune of $20,000 per camp survivor eventually were authorized by Congress. Fortunately, Tanaka didn't need the cash.

"That's the sort of thing they did with Manzanar, in California," Tanaka said, unaware his birthplace had been recognized. "But Minidoka? I wouldn't have guessed that anybody cared."

The years have granted Gary Tanaka the grace to deal with a personal history the rest of us can only imagine in our darkest dreams. The Tanakas were released from Minidoka in 1945 and returned to Seattle, where they revived the family business.

"These things do happen," Tanaka said. "Will it happen again? Probably not. People are human beings. They're subject to emotions. Put under pressure, sometimes they make the wrong decisions. I think people basically are good, but they do make mistakes."

Tanaka was speaking from the London office of Amerindo Investment Advisors, which was founded by Tanaka and his partner, Alberto Vilar, in 1980. They run a company that handles portfolios amounting to more than $12 billion. In 1993, Tanaka started buying race horses.

"I went to Longacres with my uncle when I was in high school," Tanaka said. "I thought racing was a lot of fun. I wondered what there was to it, so I'd buy the odd Racing Form, and read the weeklies and monthlies."

The journey from teenage horseplayer to heavily invested owner went first through MIT, where Tanaka did his undergraduate work, and then to London's Imperial College, from which he earned a doctorate in applied mathematics in 1970. (Thirty years later, Tanaka donated $40 million to Imperial.)

Tanaka returned to the West Coast as a portfolio manager for Crocker Bank in San Francisco, a position that evolved into the strategic management of large investments for institutional clients. His philosophy of racehorse ownership is equally precise. Tanaka targets older horses with proven ability. He is not interested in breeding, high-priced yearlings, or the inflated value placed upon colts who have yet to run in the classics.

"Racing is so big, it can engulf you," Tanaka said. "I still have a business to run, so I'd rather not be distracted by two farms and a collection of broodmares."

But what a collection it would be. Had he kept them all, the Tanaka broodmare band would have included User Friendly, Donna Viola, Squeak, Ela Athena, Snow Polina, Dreams Gallore, Party Cited, and Queen Maud, all of them major stakes winners while he owned them. His latest prize is Gourmet Girl, the champion older mare of 2001. Per the Tanaka formula, she will be bred to a high-profile stallion and sold for a multi-million dollar price.

"It's hard not to get attached to them," Tanaka admitted. "They look at you with those big, brown eyes. I just decided I had to have a little discipline, otherwise two becomes four, four becomes eight, and you think, 'Is this what I really wanted?'"

What Tanaka wants is action. He has followed such horses as Caitano, Docksider, and Hightori around the globe as they compete in Dubai, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong. With the purchase of Giant Gentleman - runner-up in both the Malibu and Strub at the current meet - Tanaka's green and gold colors will be making their Santa Anita Handicap debut atop a very live runner.

"They're turn-key horses," Tanaka said. "A week later, they're running. If you buy a yearling, you don''t know if it will even make it to the track. At least I've got a fighting chance to see these horses."

On Saturday, Tanaka will be in town to watch Giant Gentleman try to make a bit of history. No owner of Japanese descent has ever won the Santa Anita Handicap, which may not be that big of a deal, since Tanaka is very much an internationalist playing a international game.

Still, it should be noted that as Giant Gentleman makes his way through the paddock gardens on his way to be saddled, he will pass a pedestal that bears a bronze plaque with the inscription, "Santa Anita During World War II." It reads, in part: "Pursuant to Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from March 30, 1942, until Oct. 27, 1942, the facility was used as an assembly and processing center for approximately 20,000 Japanese-Americans prior to their displacement to internment camps in other parts of the country."