11/23/2007 1:00AM

Meisho Samson figures strong

EmailArtiste Royal was handed the prime post position for Sunday's $4.3 million Japan Cup at Tokyo, where he will break from post 8 in an 18-runner field in which two-time Emperor's Cup and Japanese Derby winner Meisho Samson will start as the prohibitive favorite.

With the removal of Dylan Thomas from the 27th running of this 1 1/2-mile Grade 1 contest for testing positive for equine viral arteritis, Meisho Samson's task has been simplified. The Shigetada Takahashi-trained Meisho Samson has won both the two-mile Spring Tenno Sho and the 1 1/4-mile Autumn Tenno Sho, or Emepror's Cups, after starting the season in April with a victory over subsequent Singapore International Airlines Cup winner Shadow Gate in a 1 1/4-mile Grade 2 stakes at Hanshin. In between, he was a half-length second in the Takarazuka Kinen to Dubai Duty Free winner Admire Moon - perhaps the single horse in the race who can deny Meisho Samson.

The problem Admire Moon faces, however, is that he was well beaten into seventh place by Meisho Samson in his only try going 1 1/2 miles in last year's Japanese Derby over this same Tokyo turf course. Trained by Hiroyoshi Matsuda, Admire Moon has twice won going 1 3/8 miles - in the Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen and the Grade 2 Kyoto Kinen - but 1 1/2 miles is very much more Meisho Samson's game.

Artiste Royal may stand the best chance of the four remaining foreign challengers. He was a Group 3 winner going 1 1/4 miles when trained in France by Elie Lellouche, then was winless in eight tries for Laura de Seroux. He will be making just his third start for Neil Drysdale, the most recent a victory over The Tin Man in the 1 1/4-mile Grade 2 Clement L. Hirsch at Santa Anita on Oct. 6. While there are doubts about Artiste Royal's ability to stay 1 1/2 miles (he is 1 for 5 at the distance), Drysdale is no stranger to the Japan Cup, having nearly pulled off a 34-1 upset in 2002 when Sarafan lost by a nose to Falbrav after a long bumping match at Nakayama.

"We have been planning on coming to Japan since August," said Drysdale, who expressed himself satisfied with Artiste Royal's Thursday canter and his more vigorous move Friday. "He was moving over the ground very well. I feel he's improved since he arrived in Japan. He's limberer and looser."

Joe Talamo will be aboard Artiste Royal as he was in the Hirsch, while the vastly more experienced Yutaka Take goes in search of his third Japan Cup victory on Meisho Samson, who will break from post 10. Delta Blues and Pop Rock, the first two home in last year's Melbourne Cup, both pose threats, as do last year's runner-up to Deep Impact, Dream Passport, and Vodka, the filly who won this year's Japanese Derby.

American horses dominated early runnings of the Japan Cup, winning with Mairzy Doates (1981), Half Iced (1982), and Pay the Butler (1988), but have been shut out since Golden Pheasant's 1991 triumph. Artiste Royal is in with a solid dark-horse chance, but Meisho Samson appears to be too strong at the distance.