11/21/2001 12:00AM

Anticipate 'a few surprises'

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Friday is Thanksgiving . . . in Tokyo. And please note, before dishing out the wisecracks about turkey tempura and cranberry rice balls, the holiday of Kinro Kansha no Hi is intended to offer thanks for the honest and devoted labor of the Japanese people. Giblet gravy is not part of the mix.

It makes sense, therefore, that the hardest-working jockey in Japan will be teaming up on Sunday with one of North America's most dedicated grass horses in the $4 million Japan Cup. Masi Ebina, the national leader, will be riding With Anticipation, winner of the Sword Dancer and Man o' War Stakes this year.

With Anticipation was last seen finishing seventh behind Fantastic Light and Milan in the Breeders' Cup Turf on Oct. 27. It was a strange sight - especially for With Anticipation - since he had finished first in each of his previous five grass races of 2001. Only a disqualification in the United Nations Handicap kept him from a perfect record.

"He's better than that," said his trainer, Jonathan Sheppard, about the Breeders' Cup. "By no stretch of the imagination do I think he compares with the first two. But on his best day he should have been competitive.

"Physically, I think he's fine," Sheppard went on. "He's appeared to have rebounded well from his embarrassment in the Breeders' Cup. But he's always been a bit fragile mentally. Whether or not the drubbing he took that day might have disappointed him a little, I don't know."

Sheppard has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 1990. He will suggest, with appropriate modesty, that the honor probably was bestowed more for his record with jumpers than for success on the flat. As the trainer of no fewer than six different Eclipse Award steeplechase champions, he may be right. For the purposes of this discussion, however, it helps to remember that he also trained such admirable non-jumpers as Storm Cat, Alice Springs, Ratings, and Summer Ensign.

So, if Sheppard says With Anticipation's Breeders' Cup race was an aberration, throw it out. The inside post forced him to go hard from the start. Once he was committed, it was a lot to expect of him to set a strong pace for a mile and a half on Belmont's firm ground and be able to stick around until the bitter end.

That, however, is exactly what he will be faced with in the Japan Cup. The race is a serious test of speed and stamina, played out before a crowd of more than 150,000 fans in the massive Tokyo Race Course grandstand.

At 2,400 meters (1.49 miles) over a course that is usually as firm as Centre Court, the Japan Cup goes a touch more than once around the outer oval, traveling counter-clockwise.

The surface is a dormant Bermuda hybrid (zoysia Japonica) overseeded with a cool-weather rye. The terrain undulates, descending about three feet around a sharp first turn, ascending into the far turn and then dropping again before a steady incline of approximately seven feet from the final turn to midstretch.

It takes a very good horse on a very good day to win the Japan Cup. Among the American and European champions who failed were Hellisio, Triptych, All Along, Kotashaan, Paradise Creek, and John Henry. American runners have managed to win a few - including the first two in 1981 and '82 - but the last time they raised the stars and stripes over the elaborate Japan Cup winner's ceremony (average running time: 30 minutes) was way back in 1991. That was Golden Pheasant.

There have been winners as well from France, Germany, Ireland, England, and New Zealand. And yet, international shippers take the worst of it in Japan. They face a long journey, a strict quarantine, and no home cooking. Foreign feed, medications, soaps, liniments - they are confiscated upon arrival and returned when you leave.

Because the Japan Racing Association is paying everyone's way, and their rules are clear up front, complaints are hard to take seriously. For horsemen with questions, translators are readily available. Still, there are wide gaps in nuance and interpretation between languages. It helps if you've made the trip before.

Sheppard found himself in Japan during the spring of 2000 with his veteran jumper Ninepins, the lone American invited to an international steeplechase event held at Nakayama. It was a learning experience.

"We had a few surprises," Sheppard recalled. "We didn't know they wouldn't let us work on the grass, for example. So instead of a nice sharp five-eighths for his final work, he ended up with a two-minute lick on the dirt. Then they ran out of a starting gate. He'd never started out of a gate in the 13 years of his life." Ninepins finished ninth of 16.

Sheppard foresees a better outcome for With Anticipation, but he is realistic. Running in the Japan Cup is a massive unknown.

"We don't have unusually high expectations," Sheppard said. "What we have is a 6-year-old gelding, about to be 7, who was good enough to be the first American horse invited to this year's Japan Cup. He's showing us the world - courtesy of the JRA - so why not enjoy him while we can?"