11/24/2005 12:00AM

Americans up against it

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Lava Man must run without any medication in the Japan Cup Dirt.

TOKYO - American challengers Lava Man and Tap Day face a daunting task in the $2 million at Tokyo Racecourse on Saturday when they face the deepest field of Japanese dirt runners in the six-year history of the Grade 1 contest.

Doug O'Neill, who engineered Fleetstreet Dancer's victory in this race two years ago, has elected to stay home this week, thus leaving Lava Man's saddling duties to his assistant, Leandro Mora. The Hollywood Gold Cup winner, Lava Man, faces a pair of obstacles in addition to Tap Day and the strong Japanese home team.

Used to running with both Lasix and Butazolidin, Lava Man will be deprived of those medications on Saturday, as race-day medication is outlawed in Japan. Moreover, while the Tokyo dirt track is not as deep as that at Belmont Park, where he flopped in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, it is considerably deeper than that at his beloved Hollywood, where Lava Man has won the last three times he has started.

"Hopefully, he doesn't need Lasix or Bute, but it will be a test for him," Mora said. "As for the track, it is quite sandy but it has a base he can get a grip on."

Corey Nakatani rides Lava Man for the first time in the 1 5/16-mile Japan Cup Dirt and should be able to take advantage of his mount's early speed from post 2.

Still, the improving Tap Day appears to have a better chance than his countrymate. He closed strongly to win the 1 1/8-mile Meadowlands Cup by a widening three lengths last time on Oct. 7 and looks well suited to the 10 1/2 furlongs.

"Since we realized he needs adequate time between races, we've found the key to him," said trainer Mark Hennig. "He was keyed up on the track Thursday morning, which is the way he gets before a race. He's a fresh horse and we're really pleased with his progress."

Eibar Coa retains the ride on Tap Day, who has drawn ideally in post 8.

But can the Americans handle the improving Japanese? In defending titleholder Time Paradox, they will be facing a 7-year-old who prepped perfectly with a late-running victory in the 1 3/16-mile Grade 1 JBC Classic on Nov. 3. A rider change from Yutaka Take to Olivier Peslier, who rode Hat Trick to win the Grade 1 Mile Championship last Sunday, will make no difference for a horse who will be heavily backed.

Personal Rush has won twice since having finished sixth in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic but was only fifth behind Time Paradox in the JBC, while Dubai World Cup sixth-place finisher Adjudi Mituso has looked dull in two starts since then.

The 3-year-old Kane Hekili, a son of the Sunday Silence sire Fuji Kiseki, has won 6 of his 7 lifetime starts on dirt, among them the Japan Cup Derby and the Derby Grand Prix, both Grade 1 events at 1 1/4 miles. Under the care of Hat Trick's trainer, Katsuhiko Sumii, Kane Hekili has been the talk of the backstretch all week and could ultimately prove to be in the same class as the outstanding 2001 Japan Cup Dirt winner Kurofune.

With Take jumping off Time Paradox, his new mount, Kane Hekili, is the choice with Time Paradox chasing him home and Tap Day finishing third.

Sekiguchi buys into Better Talk Now

Better Talk Now has been leased to run in part ownership by Fusao Sekiguchi in Sunday's $4 million Japan Cup. He will race under the nom de course of Brushwood Stable and Sekiguchi Ltd. and will run in Sekiguchi's red and yellow colors, the same carried to victory by Fusaichi Pegasus in the 2000 Kentucky Derby. The deal is a work-in-progress that will not be completed until after Sunday's race, according to Sekiguchi's racing manager, Yakuri Sekiguchi.

Neither trainer Bobby Frankel nor owner Gary Tanaka will be on hand for King's Drama's appearance in the Japan Cup. Frankel has opted to remain behind in California.

Better Talk Now drew perfectly for the 1 1/2-mile Japan Cup in post 7, while King's Drama had the bad luck to draw number 15 in an 18-runner field.

Both of this weekend's big races will be televised live by TVG. The Japan Cup Dirt is slated to go off at 1:20 a.m. Eastern on Saturday. The Japan Cup has a post time of 1:20 a.m. Eastern on Sunday.