12/01/2008 12:00AM

Americans face tall order in Japan Cup Dirt


Tin Cup Chalice, Mast Track, and Frost Giant, each of them well qualified in his own way, will try to make up for the latest American disappointment in Japan - the scratch of Marsh Side - in Sunday's $2 million Japan Cup Dirt, a race that has been rewritten this year in no small part to accommodate American tastes.

Formerly run at 1 5/16 miles, this year's renewal has been cut to 1 1/8 miles as a nod to the American breed's lack of stamina. That advantage accorded the American trio, however, may be offset by a change in venue from left-handed Tokyo to right-handed, undulating Hanshin, a track in western Japan near Osaka.

With Marsh Side's withdrawal from last Sunday's Japan Cup due to illness adding to American woes in Japan and Hong Kong in recent years, players might well be wary of backing anything trained by an American in the Far East, where American-trained horses have not won a race since Fleetstreetdancer took the 2003 Japan Cup Dirt on a sloppy track in Tokyo. The three Americans challenging in this year's renewal all have solid claims, but holes can be shot in their form as well.

Tin Cup Chalice has run up a good-looking 8-for-9 record running against lesser than he will be facing Sunday. He was beating up on fellow New York-breds prior to beating a questionable bunch of Grade 2 types in the 1 1/16-mile Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park. That is hardly a recommendation for international competition. Moreover, his "all out" Indiana Derby score was his first outside of New York-bred or Finger Lakes competition. The Japan Cup Dirt will be a big step up in class for the Crusader Sword 3-year-old and it is the first time he will be facing older horses away from the inferior confines of Finger Lakes. He will have difficulty holding off the always fast-finishing Japanese home side.

Mast Track's marquee victory came in the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Gold Cup on the Hollywood Park Cushion Track when he was getting 3 to 8 pounds from all but one of his eight rivals. The Japan Cup Dirt will be the first time the Mizzen Mast 4-year-old has ever run on traditional dirt, again, hardly a recipe for success on the international stage. He came back to the pack in his recent outings on synthetic surfaces at equal weights in the Pacific Classic, Goodwood Stakes, and Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, and will be hard put to improve on those efforts against Japan's best dirt performers.

Frost Giant owns the best dirt performance of the three Americans, that coming in his 40-1 upset of the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap two back on June 28 at Belmont Park. He is 2 for 3 on dirt lifetime. His last outing in Woodbine's Northern Dancer on turf, in which he was eased, can be excused.

One of Frost Giant's problems is consistency. He is an unreliable sort, throwing in a clinker every third of fourth start. Moreover, like Tin Cup Chalice, he will be running without the aid of Lasix. Mast Track also will be running without butazolidin, a good reason to stay away from him entirely.

The Japanese defense will be led by defending titleholder Vermilion. The El Condor Pasa 6-year-old has since won the one-mile Grade 1 February Stakes at Tokyo before flopping in the Dubai World Cup. He has had only one race since Dubai, that a Nov. 3 victory in the 1 1/8-mile, 75-yard JBC Classic at Sonoda, the best race run on the National Association of Racing circuit. JBC Classic runner-up Success Brocken is, like Tin Cup Chalice, a confirmed front-runner. Blue Concorde was second to Vermilion in the February Stakes.

A pair of improving 3-year-olds, Espoir City and Kikuno Salire, arrive at Hanshin off four-race winning streaks, Kikuno Salire's latest score coming in the one-mile Grade 3 Musahsino Stakes against older horses on the Tokyo dirt track.

And then there is Casino Drive. A grave disappointment when last in the Breeders' Cup Classic, it is difficult to tell at this stage whether a return to Japan will result in the flowering of his vast potential or whether his two trans-Pacific journeys this year have taken the fight out of him for the time being. His Peter Pan victory in May rates in the same league with the best efforts of most of his opponents. He could be vindicated on Sunday, or he could fall prey to one of his more seasoned Japanese rivals, which is the place to look for the Japan Cup Dirt winner, most likely either Vermilion or Kikuno Salire.