11/23/2001 1:00AM

Americans strong at Japan Cup


The four American challengers in the $3.86 million Japan Cup at Tokyo Racecourse on Sunday face the daunting task of overcoming what is probably the strongest home defense in the 21-year history of the race, which is the penultimate leg of the Emirates World Series.

Timboroa and With Anticipation, who drew unfortunately wide in posts 12 and 13 in the 15-runner field, along with Cagney and White Heart, must cope with four highly accomplished Japanese horses, among them the defending champion and world's richest Thorough-bred, T.M. Opera O.

A 5-year-old son of Opera House whose current earnings stand at $15,249,688, T.M. Opera O has not been as brilliant as he was at 4, when he reeled off a remarkable eight-race winning streak, all at the graded level. This season he has won just two of five and was beaten into second by Hong Kong Cup-bound Agnes Digital in the Autumn Tenno Sho on Oct. 28.

But that was over 1 1/4 miles, while the Japan Cup is run at 1 1/2 miles. T.M. Opera O will appreciate the return to his best distance but must once again contend with archrival Meisho Doto.

A Irish-bred son of Bigstone, Meisho Doto was third in the Autumn Tenno Sho, but in his previous start, the 1 3/8-mile Takarazuka Kinen in June, he beat T.M. Opera O by 1 1/4 lengths. Meisho Doto was just a neck runner-up to the defending champ last year (when Fantastic Light was third) and is the selection to post a mild upset at 7-2.

Comparisons with Fantastic Light leave both Timboroa (Jerry Bailey) and With Anticipation (Masayoshi Ebina), third and seventh behind him in the Breeders' Cup Turf, at least six lengths behind the Japanese big guns, but two other locals loom large.

Stay Gold, who nipped Fantastic Light in the Dubai Sheema Classic and who was disqualified from first after finishing ahead of T.M. Opera O in the Kyoto Daishoten, is dangerous with Yutaka Take aboard, while To the Victory, second to Captain Steve in the Dubai World Cup before winning the 1 3/8-mile, Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup two weeks ago, has been primed for this.

Cagney (Mike Smith) stands a good longshot chance off his sharp score in the Grade 3 Carleton F. Burke Handicap, but White Heart (Gary Stevens) is untested at the Japan Cup distance. If a non-Japanese horse is to find his way into the winner's circle, it could be Golan, who has sandwiched a Group 2 victory at 1 1/2 miles in between losing efforts behind Galileo and Sakhee.