12/07/2007 12:00AM

No holiday for Dylan Thomas

EmailDylan Thomas heads a glittering global lineup at Sha Tin on Sunday for the deepest and most competitive edition in the history of the Hong Kong International Races.

A two-time European champion, Dylan Thomas will face a tough task in the $1.8 million, 1 1/2-mile Hong Kong Vase, however. Not only is this 4-year-old son of Danehill coming off a woefully subpar effort in the Breeders' Cup Turf - a race run on soft ground that was all wrong for him - but he is also in Hong Kong following an aborted trip to Tokyo, where he was banned from running in the Japan Cup because of lingering traces of equine viral arteritis in his system.

If Dylan Thomas, winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, is at his best, he could have his rivals over a barrel on his preferred good-to-firm ground. But those rivals are a fearsome lot.

Red Rocks, who will be making just his third start since June, was three-quarters of a length in front of Dylan Thomas when third in the BC Turf. Germany's prolific winner Quijano is coming off a sharp third in the Canadian International, while Doctor Dino, winner of the Man o' War, was a good third last time behind the progressive Literato in Newmarket's Champion Stakes.

The feeling is that the checkered 2007 campaign of Team Magnier, owners of Dylan Thomas, will end on the same confused note as it began, when their promising 3-year-old Holy Roman Emperor was quickly retired to replace George Washington, who was hustled back into training after having proved infertile. George Washington ultimately died following the Breeders' Cup Classic. Dylan Thomas's roundabout route to Hong Kong could be his undoing on Sunday, when the preference is for the Brian Meehan-trained Red Rocks.

Local heroes Viva Pataca and Vengeance of Rain will clash in the day's richest race, the $2.5 million Hong Kong Cup at 1 1/4 miles. Viva Pataca has beaten Vengeance of Rain, the Dubai Sheema Classic winner, in their last two meetings at Sha Tin and is likely to get the better of him again on Sunday, but they must both beware of Godolphin's ace miler Ramonti. The winner of three Group 1 miles this year in the Queen Anne Stakes, the Sussex Stakes, and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, Ramonti will be trying 10 furlongs for the first time, but his rider, Frankie Dettori, could be in a position to steal the race if he employs front-running tactics.

If trainer Aidan O'Brien fails with Dylan Thomas, he could succeed with Excellent Art in the $2 million Hong Kong Mile. The winner of the St. James's Palace Stakes in June, he was narrowly beaten by Ramonti in both the Sussex and the Queen Elizabeth II. A poor start and soft ground left him second in the Breeders' Cup Mile, so with Ramonti in the Cup and firmish ground underfoot, Excellent Art looks ready to cast off his recent case of seconditis.

Only, though, if Darjina accedes to that scenario. A daughter of Zamindar trained by Alain de Royer-Dupre, Darjina is a three-time Group 1 mile winner herself, having scored in the French 1000 Guineas, the Prix d'Astarte, and against older colts in the Prix du Moulin de Longchamp, in which Ramonti was second by 2 1/2 lengths. Absent since Sept. 29, she and rider Christophe Soumillon could force Excellent Art into a relapse.

Japanese speedster Kongo Rikishio is a danger breaking from the rail, while Spirito del Vento and Creachadoir both hold upset chances.

The four big races on the Sha Tin card are billed as the World Thoroughbred Turf Championships, but only the $1.5 million, six-furlong Hong Kong Sprint will crown a definitive world champ. That could be Australian rocket Miss Andretti. The winner of three Group 1 sprints Down Under this year, she has also won the Group 2 King's Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot and is coming off a sharp Group 2 score at home. Her draw of post 12 in a field of 13 should not be a disadvantage in this one-turn contest, but the International Sprint Trial winner, Sacred Kingdom, and defending title-holder Absolute Champion pose very serious threats. So do British invader Benbaun and the dangerous Marchand d'Or, a two-time Freddie Head-trained Group 1 winner who could be the day's value play at 14-1.