11/24/2008 12:00AM

Few invaders to challenge for Japan Cup

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Sunday's $5.4 million Japan Cup at Tokyo Racecourse should be a magnet for the world's best middle-distance turf horses, but none of them - Zarkava, New Approach, Youmzain, Conduit, Soldier of Fortune, or Eagle Mountain - will be making the trip. While Zarkava, New Approach, and Soldier of Fortune have been retired, the others are all bypassing the 12-furlong highlight of the Japanese season, in no small part because the local horses are so tough to beat on their home ground.

Japanese-trained horses have won eight of the last 10 Japan Cups, among them Arc second El Condor Pasa, all-time leading earner T.M. Opera O, and Deep Impact, widely regarded as the best Thoroughbred ever produced in Japan. Only Falbrav in 2002 and Alkaased in 2005, both trained by the British-based Italian Luca Cumani and ridden by the British-based Italian Frankie Dettori, have interfered with home team dominance.

Cumani will saddle a longshot in this year's Cup in Purple Moon. Second in last year's two-mile Melbourne Cup, the gelded Galileo 5-year-old was second on Oct. 19 in just his second start since then in the 1 1/2-mile Group 2 Prix du Conseil de Paris. He is fresh and has been pointed to this race all year. Given Cumani's record in this race, he is probably the best value of the four foreign invaders.

Sixties Icon disappointed when fifth in the Breeders' Cup Marathon. Trainer Jeremy Noseda was unhappy with the ride given to the Galileo 5-year-old by Dettori and has replaced him with Johnny Murtagh, who rode him to two of his three Group 3 victories in England this year. Cumani, meanwhile, has passed on the opportunity to seek a third Japan Cup triumph with Dettori and will stick with Jamie Spencer on Purple Moon.

Papal Bull is the third British entry. Trained by Michael Stoute, who won this race with the Dettori-ridden Singspiel in 1996 and with Pilsudski a year later, he is a 5-year-old son of Montjeu who would stand an excellent chance of victory if he could reproduce the form that had him a half-length second to Duke of Marmalade in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes in July. But Papal Bull was a distant second (placed third) in the Rheinland-Pokal after that and was an even duller 12th in Zarkava's Arc.

American hopes lie with Canadian International winner Marsh Side. Trained by Neil Drysdale, whose Sarafan finished a nose second to Falbrav in this race in 2002, the Gone West 5-year-old seems a bit ambitiously placed here. He was dismissed at 29-1 at Woodbine, and while he was beating nice Group 2 types like Champs Elysees, Doctor Dino, and Quijano that day, the horses he will be facing on Sunday are a great deal more accomplished.

For Marsh Side and the three Brits will be facing one of the deepest Japanese fields in many years. While there are no Deep Impacts in this Japan Cup, there are at least three Japan-bred locals who are absolutely first class.

They are the last three winners of the Japanese Derby in Deep Sky (2008), the filly Vodka (2007), and Meisho Samson (2006), any one of which could translate a home-track advantage into victory, especially in light of the fact that the Japan Cup is run over the same course and distance as the Japanese Derby.

While Meisho Samson is returning from Paris where he was 10th in the Arc, albeit four lengths in front of Papal Bull, Vodka and Deep Sky are both coming off bang-up efforts in the 1 1/4-mile Autumn Tenno Sho at Tokyo on Nov. 2.

They were first and third that day, Vodka beating her arch-rival Daiwa Scarlet by a nose, with Deep Sky just a neck behind the runner-up. The winning time was an outstanding 1:57.20, and both will be relatively fresh, each having had just two outings since June. Daiwa Scarlet will pass the Japan Cup to await the Arima Kinen on Dec. 28, but last year's Arima Kinen winner Matsurida Gogh, a recent Grade 2 winner going 1 3/8 miles, and this year's Japanese St. Leger winner Oken Bruce Lee give Japan two more guns to fire at a trophy that is a short price to remain at home this year.