12/07/2008 12:00AM

U.S. invaders face tough task in Japan

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Defending title holder Vermilion locks horns with the potentially superb Casino Drive at Hanshin on Sunday in the $2.7 million Japan Cup Dirt, in which American challengers Tin Cup Chalice, Frost Giant, and Mast Track will have to produce career-best efforts if they hope to find the winner's circle in this 1 1/8-mile Grade 1 event.

The winner of 7 of his last 9 starts, Vermilion is fresh from victory in the 1 1/8-mile, 75-yard JBC Classic, the championship event on Japan's National Association of Racing circuit. The Sei Ishizaka trainee is no stranger to the tougher Japan Racing Association, however, as he not only took last year's Japan Cup Dirt when it was run at 1 5/16 miles at Tokyo, but this year's one-mile February Stakes at the same track. The only blemishes on his record in the last two years were unplaced efforts in the last two Dubai World Cups.

Vermilion's JBC Classic triumph on Nov. 3 was his first outing since the World Cup and sets him up perfectly for a Japan Cup Dirt repeat. Yasunari Iwata replaces the injured Yutaka Take in the saddle.

Casino Drive looks like something of an enigma at this stage. The overpowering winner of the Peter Pan Stakes in May in just his second career start, he failed badly in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride but is back on his favorite surface, traditional dirt. Still very lightly raced, he remains eligible for further improvement.

"He's coming along much better than I expected," said trainer Kazuo Fujisawa. "The only reason he lost the Breeders' Cup Classic was the synthetic track. He spent about 10 days in America resting and it's done a lot for him. He's been working well at Hanshin and is eager to go."

Katsumi Ando takes the ride on Casino Drive, a Mineshaft half-brother to Belmont Stakes winners Jazil and Rags to Riches.

If Frost Giant can find the form that won him the Suburban Handicap on June 28, he will be in with a chance. Like Vermilion, he comes into this race fresh - perhaps too fresh, as his only start since then came in the Northern Dancer Stakes on the Woodbine turf on Sept. 7 when he was eased. Cornelio Velasquez rides for trainer Rick Dutrow.

Mast Track, owned and trained by Bobby Frankel, will be making his first start on dirt, his last win coming on the Cushion Track in the Hollywood Gold Cup on June 28. Last time, he was three lengths fifth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride. He should appreciate the step back up to 1 1/8 miles, but still faces a tough task under Garrett Gomez from a wide 13-of-16 draw.

Tin Cup Chalice has put together a glittering record in New York-bred company and won the Grade 2 Indiana Derby last time, but he steps way up in class Sunday. Committed to the front under new rider Edgar Prado, the Mike Lecesse trainee would be a big surprise at this level.

Of the other Japanese contenders, Blue Concorde is a top-class dirt miler but has never won beyond that distance. Success Brocken was just a neck second to Vermilion in the JBC Classic and looks like good value. The sentimental choice will be 2005 winner Kane Hekili. Fourth in the 2006 Dubai World Cup, he was only ninth off a 2 1/2-year layoff on Nov. 8 in the one-mile Musashino Stakes.