12/11/2003 1:00AM

Sarafan withdrawn from Mile


HONG KONG - And then there were two.

America's uncommonly small contingent of three runners in Sunday's Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin was reduced by one-third Thursday when Sarafan was withdrawn from the Hong Kong Mile due to lingering traces of a banned substance.

"Traces of a long-acting steroid remained in Sarafan's system after he was first tested upon his arrival in Hong Kong on Dec. 2," said Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the Hong Kong Jockey Club's executive director of racing. "There was a 70 percent chance that it would have cleared up by race day, but his connections decided to withdraw him on Thursday rather than be faced with the possibility of having him scratched by the stewards on the day of the race."

Because Sarafan's owners, Gary Tanaka and Fusao Sekiguchi, and trainer, Neil Drysdale, were, in effect, complying with the wishes of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Tanaka and Sekiguchi will not have to pay for their horse's travel expenses. Tanaka had to pick up the cost when Falcon Flight was withdrawn on the morning of the 2001 Hong Kong Vase by order of the stewards for traces of a banned substance.

Sarafan's departure means that the United States will be represented by just Denon and rider Corey Nakatani in the Hong Kong Cup, and Mister Acpen and David Flores in the Mile. Neither of the Yanks will be inconvenienced by their post 9 draws in 14-runner fields, which were pulled on Thursday morning. Both, however, will go off as longshots.

All eyes were on Luca Cumani as he drew the gate assignment for the odds-on Falbrav in the $2.4 million Hong Kong Cup at 1 1/4 miles. When the number 5 was announced, a smile crossed the trainer's face. A 5-year-old son of Fairy King, Falbrav should have no trouble sitting behind the pace before making his patented charge at the three-eighths pole.

Falbrav cantered Thursday morning at Sha Tin and won't do much more before Sunday.

"He is spot on as he is," said Cumani, who is also unconcerned about the condition of Falbrav's new rider, Frankie Dettori, who suffered a slight ankle sprain in a spill at Happy Valley on Wednesday night.

"I'm going to give Frankie a fitness test on Friday," the trainer joked. "Make him run a furlong."

In what is shaping up as one of the definitive races of 2003, the Cup will be filled with intrigue from the moment the gate opens. With the dangerous filly Bright Sky in post 2, the front-running Weightless in 3, and Falbrav's chief rival in the betting, Rakti, in 4, Dettori will know exactly where he stands from the start. Of the main Cup contenders, only the Japanese invader and Sha Tin course specialist Eishin Preston drew poorly, in 13.

In the Mile, the likely favorite, Lohengrin, drew unluckily in 12. Mister Acpen, who should be on or near the lead, may have to be hustled a bit from 9, but there is a nearly half-mile run to the turn at right-handed Sha Tin, so Flores should not have any difficulty establishing his desired position.

The effect of the draw in both the 1 1/2-mile Vase and the straight five-furlong Sprint is nil. The Sprint favorites, South Africa's National Currency and local hotshot Silent Witness, drew 6 and 11.

The ground at Sha Tin on Sunday is expected to be good to firm, conditions that should suit virtually all of the leading contenders.