11/24/2006 1:00AM

Deep Impact, Heart's Cry appear best


Sunday's $4.1 million, 1 1/2-mile Japan Cup at Tokyo Racecourse has a definitive look about it as local heroes Deep Impact and Heart's Cry square off against the superb British mare Ouija Board in the latest East-West international Thoroughbred matchup.

The darling of the Japanese racing world, Deep Impact is coming off a game third-place finish behind Rail Link and Pride in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Oct. 1, an effort from which he has since been disqualified for testing positive for traces of a banned breathing aid. It was only the second time in his illustrious career that Deep Impact had been defeated, but it will have done him a world of good as he had come into the Arc off a three-month layoff, since his handy score in the 1 3/8-mile Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen at Kyoto on June 25. With the Arc under his belt, Deep Impact should be ready to return to winning ways for trainer Yasuo Ikee, although there probably will be no value in backing him.

A mere 5,000 Japanese bettors among a Longchamp crowd of 52,000 on Arc day bet him down to 1-2 favoritism against the likes of Hurricane Run and Shirocco. With 100,000 people expected at Tokyo on Sunday, his odds could be even skimpier than that.

Deep Impact is perfectly suited by Tokyo's longish stretch, which measures just over 2 1/2 furlongs. With the exception of the Arc, when he was close up throughout, he has done all of his running from well off the pace. Since this year's 26th Japan Cup renewal has drawn its shortest field ever with just 11 runners, Deep Impact and rider Yutaka Take will have less traffic than usual to overcome.

Last year on Christmas Day, Deep Impact failed to overhaul Heart's Cry in the 1 9/16-mile Arima Kinen at Nakayama, where the stretch is just 1 1/2 furlongs long. A heartbreaking second by a nose to Alkaased in last year's Japan Cup after a troubled trip, Heart's Cry will break from the rail on Sunday under Christophe Lemaire, the Frenchman who rode him to victory in the Arima Kinen, the Dubai Sheema Classic three months later, and to a third-place finish behind Hurricane Run and Electrocutionist in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot on July 29.

The obstacle Heart's Cry faces on Sunday is the same one he faced in the King George: he will be running off a four-month absence. As a result, trainer Kojiro Hashiguchi has again set him a difficult task.

Ouija Board, on the other hand, is primed and ready for yet another big effort. The two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf has seven Group 1 or Grade 1 victories to her credit, including two against males. The Ed Dunlop trainee will be ridden by Frankie Dettori, who guided Alkaased to victory in last year's Japan Cup, a race in which Ouija Board was fifth, two lengths behind runner-up Heart's Cry. Heart's Cry was also nine lengths in front of Ouija Board in the Dubai Sheema Classic. Those results suggest that a Deep Impact-Heart's Cry exacta could be in the making.

Two locally trained horses could be in the mix, Japanese Derby winner Meisho Samson and the Autumn Tenno Sho runner-up Swift Current. The John Hammond-trained filly Freedonia, second in the Turf Classic at Belmont, has an upset chance at a big price, but one of the Japanese big two should give the home side its seventh Japan Cup crown in the last nine years.