12/13/2001 12:00AM

Tobougg, challenger to watch

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HONG KONG - Jim and Tonic returns to his home away from home at Sha Tin Racecourse on Sunday as the star attraction in the $2.3 million Group 1 Hong Kong Cup, the main event on the Hong Kong International Races program.

The Cup is one of four turf races that comprise the Hong Kong International program. The others are the Mile, the Vase (at 1 1/2 miles), and the Sprint (at five furlongs). The United States is represented by four horses, although none in the Cup. Post time for the Cup is 5 p.m. Sunday in Hong Kong, which is 4 a.m. Eastern time in the United States.

Three times a winner in Group 1 races at Sha Tin, Jim and Tonic will start as the favorite for the 1 1/4-mile turf race, especially after having drawn advantageously in post five. Trained by Francois Doumen, he is the track record holder at 2:00.10 and is expected to be bet down to 2-1 by some 65,000 racing-mad fans who will pack the Sha Tin grandstand. But Godolphin Racing could spoil Jim and Tonic's homecoming with the dangerous and still-improving Tobougg.

Jim and Tonic, a gelding, has been first or second in 25 of his 35 career starts for earnings of more than $4.8 million, but as a 7-year-old he may be susceptible to the assaults of age and the younger generation.

Tobougg, on the other hand, is a 3-year-old who has had just seven starts and his latest may have been his best.

Sent to the front at the quarter pole in the Champion Stakes on Oct. 20, he could not quite hold off another improving 3-year-old, Nayef, losing by just three-quarters of a length. A Barathea colt, Tobougg has impressed in the morning all week and with Frankie Dettori in the saddle, he could prevail in what should be a closely fought contest.

Aidan O'Brien has sent Bach, third in the Breeders' Cup Mile, to the Cup. A Group 2 winner at the distance in Ireland, Bach was a close third behind Medicean in the 1 1/4-mile Eclipse Stakes, finishing a head in front of Tobougg. Tobougg, however, has had only one race since - he finished second in the Champion Stakes - and his freshness gives him an added edge.

Neither Japanese invader Agnes Digital, winner of a 10-furlong Grade 1 over T.M. Opera O last time, nor Arlington Million winner Silvano can be discounted. However, their chances were compromised with unfortunate draws in 14 and 12, respectively. There is a rather short run to the first turn of this two-turn, right-handed, 1 1/4-mile race that greatly detracts from the chances of horses drawn wide.

The French fillies Choc Ice and Terre a Terre are in tough while the Indian-bred, Singapore-trained Saddle Up would be a big surprise even with the red-hot Olivier Peslier aboard.

The Hong Kong Cup is the 12th and final leg of the Emirates World Series, whose championship has already been cinched for a second successive year by Fantastic Light. Tobougg should continue Godolphin's remarkable record in the Series, which is slated for a major overhaul next year now that Emirates Airlines has dropped its corporate sponsorship.