02/22/2008 1:00AM

Vermilion looks sharp at Tokyo

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Japan's leading hope for the Dubai World Cup, Vermilion, will have his final preparation for the world's richest race at Tokyo Racecourse on Sunday in the $1.71 million February Stakes, the first Grade 1 contest of the year on the Japanese calendar.

A distant fourth behind Invasor in last year's World Cup, the 6-year-old Vermilion has gone from strength to strength since then, winning all three of his races at the highest level in Japan. Vermilion, a son of Japan Cup winner and Arc runner-up, El Condor Pasa, was given a long rest after his Dubai exertions by trainer Sei Ishizaka. He returned from a seven-month layoff to win the $1.5 million, 1 1/4-mile JBC Classic by four lengths on Oct. 31 at Ohi, then took Tokyo's $2.9 million, 1 5/16-mile Japan Cup Dirt on Nov. 24 when the Vladimir Cerin-trained Student Council could manage only eighth. Most recently, on Dec. 29, Vermilion scored another four-length victory in Ohi's $1.2 million, 1 1/4-mile Tokyo Daishoten.

Those three triumphs made Vermilion an easy choice as Japan's champion dirt horse in 2007. But while he has a decided class edge over his 15 rivals on Sunday, he does have some questions to answer. One is the cut back in distance to the February's mile. The only time Vermilion has gone as short as this was in the 2006 February, when he was fifth behind Kane Hekili, Japan's dirt champion at the time. Last year he prepped for the World Cup with a six-length score in the 1 5/16-mile Kawasaki Kinen, a race from which he was scratched this year on Jan. 30 because of an inflamed hind hock.

He must also overcome a wide post 15 draw in this one-turn mile, in which rider Yutaka Take must take care not to lose too much ground early for his normally late-running mount.

One of Vermilion's chief rivals, Wild Wonder, has drawn even wider in 16. A wet-track specialist, he won the seven-furlong Grade 3 Negishi Stakes three weeks ago after a fifth-place finish behind Vermilion in the longer Japan Cup Dirt.

Field Rouge may pose a bigger threat from post 4. Runner-up by 1 1/4-lengths in the Japan Cup Dirt, he has since won twice, most recently in the Kawasaki Kinen.

* Gliding, the Paul Fout-trained winner of both the Temple Gwathmey and the Foxbrook Hurdle in 2007, has been selected by the Japan Racing Association to run in the $1.58 million, 2 5/8-mile Nakayama Grand Jump at Nakayama Racecourse on April 19.