11/30/2009 1:00AM

Japan figures to make it 9 for 10

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The injury to Summer Bird forcing him out of the $2.3 million Japan Cup Dirt at Hanshin Racecourse near Osaka on Sunday puts a damper on the race, especially from the American point of view. The Tim Ice-trained son of Birdstone looked like the class of the field in the 1 1/8-mile contest as the best Japanese dirt horse, two-time Dirt winner Kane Hekili, also is out with an injury. That leaves local journeyman Vermilion at the head of a pack.

Any one of Summer Bird's victories in the Belmont Stakes, Travers Stakes, or Jockey Club Gold Cup qualified him for a $1 million bonus should he have landed the Japan Cup Dirt. American hopes now rest with Tizway, a lightly raced 4-year-old son of two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow whose best effort came in his most recent outing when he was 5 1/2 lengths third behind Summer Bird in the Gold Cup. That form makes the James Bond trainee eligible for the Japan Cup Dirt in what has proved to be an off year for Japanese dirt horses. But given the incredible record of the Japanese defending their home turf in recent years, Tizway will surely have to improve in order to take down first prize.

Vermilion must rate the favorite at this stage, but he could be upstaged by the new kid on the block Wonder Acute, or the much-improved Espoir City.

A 7-year-old by 1999 Arc runner-up El Condor Pasa, Vermilion is 12 for 21 on dirt, with his worst effort a last-place finish behind Curlin in the 2008 Dubai World Cup. He won the Japan Cup Dirt when it was run at 1 5/16 miles at Tokyo in 2007 and was a half-length third behind Kane Hekili last year as the 6-5 favorite going 1 1/8 miles at Hanshin.

He has won his last two starts, Nagoya's 1 3/16-mile JBC Classic and the 1 1/4-mile Teio Sho at Ohi Raceourse near Tokyo, the two best races on the all-dirt National Association of Racing circuit. Trained by Sei Ishizaka, Vermilion will have the invaluable services of Yutaka Take in the saddle.

Wonder Acute is a 3-year-old son of 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic, who stands at Iburi Stallion Station in Hokkaido. Out of a mare by Pleasant Tap, the Masao Sato trainee has begun to fulfill his potential of late, winning three in a row - the last two at the Grade 3 level going a mile and 1 1/4 miles against older horses on dirt on the Japan Racing Association circuit - but he is stepping up in class here.

Makoto Sparviero is a front-running dirt specialist who was just a head second to Vermilion last time in the JBC Classic.

Espoir City looks dangerous off three straight victories, the first of which came in the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 3 March Stakes at Nakayama on the JRA circuit. Most recently, he was the impressive four-length winner of the Mile Championship at Morioka on the NAR circuit, where he defeated Success Brocken, who had beaten 2008 Peter Pan winner Casino Drive in the Grade 1 February Stakes at Tokyo this winter. Success Brocken will line up, but he was only 10th last time behind Wonder Acute in the one-mile, Grade 3 Musashino Stakes at Tokyo on Nov. 7.

Summer Bird could have dealt with such company, but it will be much more difficult for Tizway, who also must cope with Hanshin's right-handed turns and no race-day medication.

The Japanese have won eight of the nine previous runnings of the Japan Cup Dirt, with only the Doug O'Neill-trained Fleetstreetdancer in 2003 getting in their way. Expect the home team to prevail again Sunday, with Espoir City the selection in a tight fit over Wonder Acute and Vermilion.