11/30/2001 12:00AM

The Kurofune challenge (put that in your Cigar)


NEW YORK - All eyes East. The two Japan Cup races at Tokyo weekend revealed a strength in Japanese racing that would have been unthinkable five years ago.

The surprise came not so much from the result of the Japan Cup, in which the first five horses to cross the line were all trained in Japan. The appearance in recent years of horses like El Condor Pasa and Taiki Shuttle had already shown that at the top level Japanese turf racing is on a par with Europe.

What emerged from the Japan Cup Dirt, however, is a horse of major international importance.

With his overpowering victory in the Dirt, Kurofune has thrown down the gauntlet to American main track racing. The U.S. had managed to maintain its perceived superiority in dirt racing the last two years largely through the efforts of Tiznow, but this new challenge from Japan could be on a level with that made by Dubai Millennium.

A full brother to Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies third Bella Bellucci, Kurofune is made in the mold of Cigar. Purchased as a 2-year-old by Maketo Kaneko at the Fasig-Tipton February Sale for $430,000, Kurofune, a son of French Deputy, ran eight times on turf in Japan with more success than Cigar had in the early part of his career on the turf.

Kurofune won four of his grass starts, among them the Grade 1 NHK Mile Cup. He also finished fifth in the Japanese Derby behind Japan Cup winner Jungle Pocket.

Switched to dirt for the Grade 3 Musashino Stakes at Tokyo on Oct. 27, he responded with a nine-length waltz in track-record time of 1:33.30. Japanese bettors, ever alert to a good thing, banged him down to 7-10 in the Japan Cup Dirt in spite of the presence of two-time U.S. Grade 1 winner Lido Palace. With Yutaka Take aboard, Kurofune never gave his backers an anxious moment, coming from the rear and drawing off to win by seven lengths from defending champ Wing Arrow. In the process, he left Lido Palace floundering in his wake in eighth, set a new track record of 2:05.90 for 1 5/16 miles, and became the first Japanese-trained horse to win Grade 1 races on both turf and dirt.

Coincidentally, his winning margin in the Dirt was the same as Cigar's when Cigar recorded his first Grade 1 win in the 1994 NYRA Mile. Kurofune will now attempt to follow in Cigar's footsteps with a victory in the Dubai World Cup where he could meet Sakhee, who so nearly gave European-trained horses a fourth Breeders' Cup victory in the Classic on Oct. 27.

So, there is now a situation in which the two best dirt horses in the world, Sakhee and Kurofune, are not trained in America. With Johannesburg the winter book favorite for the Kentucky Derby, American racing is facing an unprecedented challenge on what we consider our home turf, i.e., dirt.

With none of the seven American-trained horses earning so much as a single yen last weekend in Japan, one might think poorly of our prospects for the Hong Kong International Races on Dec. 16, but that is hardly the case.

American representatives rank as the top-rated horses in three of the big Hong Kong heats: Nuclear Debate in the Sprint (in which Morluc will seek revenge for a head defeat to Falvelon), Forbidden Apple in the Mile, and Val Royal in the 1 1/4-mile Cup.

Val Royal will be the star attraction at Sha Tin as Julio Canani attempts to win Eclipse Award votes for his Breeders' Cup Mile winner. There is a feeling that Val Royal is in the same class as Sakhee, Galileo, and Fantastic Light, and it is Fantastic Light whom he must outpoll in the balloting for best turf horse in America.

Despite a number of injuries, Val Royal has run only one bad race in his career. That was when he disliked both the track and the distance in the Epsom Derby. His effort in the Breeders' Cup Mile was arguably the best of the day. Coming from far outside, he circled the field to win rather comfortably from Forbidden Apple.

In the Hong Kong Cup, Val Royal will face stiff challenges from Sha Tin past master Jim and Tonic, BC Mile third Bach, Prix de l'Opera winner Terre a Terre, E.P. Taylor winner Choc Ice, and, perhaps most dangerous of all, Agnes Digital.

The Crafty Prospector 4-year-old is coming off a victory over narrow Japan Cup runner-up T.M. Opera O in the 1 1/4-mile Autumn Tenno Sho. If Val Royal can beat this bunch, he will deserve an Eclipse Award.

Sadly, neither Sunline or Fairy King Prawn will run in Hong Kong this year. Their anticipated rematch in the Mile fell apart when trainer-owner Trevor McKee decided not to send defending champ Sunline from New Zealand, while Fairy King Prawn was withdrawn because of a lingering leg injury. The Mile cut up further when Godolphin withdrew Slickly. None of this hurt's the chances of Forbidden Apple, who was fourth in last year's Hong Kong Cup.

White Heart, America's representative in the 1 1/2-mile Vase, arrived in Hong Kong from Japan on Thursday. Forbidden Apple touches down on Sunday after a flight from New York. Val Royal and Morluc fly in together from Los Angeles on Monday, while Nuclear Debate arrives Friday for his third try in the Sprint.

It is a small but strong group of Americans who should make up for the U.S.'s embarrassing performance in Japan.