Japan Cup weekend is upon us, but this year’s is not the double G1 combo of the past eight years. It’s the turf version only, Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse.

The Japan Cup Dirt, normally run on the Saturday before the turf version, has been relocated west to Hanshin Racecourse, cut down 300 meters to 1,800, switched from counter-clockwise to clockwise and moved to Dec. 7.

The single race this Sunday makes for a rather lonely weekend, coupled with the fact that only four horses (three from the United Kingdom, one from the United States) have made the trip to Japan from abroad and only two countries other than Japan are represented.

It’s a far cry from earlier years, such as the second running of the Japan Cup in 1982, when nine horses from six foreign countries participated alongside the Japanese runners in what was truly an international event, a racing festival of some of the world’s best horses and riders.

Nonetheless, the competition Sunday may be some of the hottest in the Japan Cup’s 28-year history, with nine top-level winners, including three Nippon Derby winners — Meisho Samson, Vodka and Deep Sky. The field of 18 vies for a first-place prize of ¥250 million.

The Derby trio — Deep Sky won this year, Vodka last year and Meisho Samson in 2006 — is expected to emerge as the top three choices for the race. Meisho Samson has drawn the No. 2 post position, Vodka No. 4, and Deep Sky the No. 9 slot, though the mid-stretch start of the 2,400-meter long race means the draw is not as crucial as in a shorter race or one starting closer to a turn.

Vodka is likely to be chosen the race favorite, despite her just having come off a grueling 2-cm win of the fall Emperor’s Cup. Only four weeks later and with an added 400 meters in mixed company, a win for the 4-year-old filly would be a stupendous feat, the kind Vodka is known for. Her regular jockey of late, Yutaka Take, was to ride Meisho Samson, but will actually be sitting the Japan Cup out entirely, after suffering a fall and broken arm last Sunday.

Vodka will be paired with Yasunari Iwata, who rode her to victory in the mile Yasuda Kinen in June. A difficult filly, there is concern that she will not settle well enough in the race’s early stages to save what’s needed for the latter stages, especially at the longer distance. The stretch at Tokyo is some 530 meters long, with a slope the undoing of many a runner.

Deep Sky sat out the final leg of the Japanese Triple Crown, the Kikkasho, giving him a Japan Cup-friendly rotation, but 3 is still considered a young age with which to capture the JC. The past decade has seen only Jungle Pocket do so in 2001.

Meisho Samson looks to have returned to form in time to put in a good performance. Sixth in last year’s race, Samson is winless this year, though he was a close second in both the spring Emperor’s Cup and the Takarazuka Kinen. He traveled to France for the Arc, but disappointed with a 10th-place finish. He will be paired with Mamoru Ishibashi, who rode Samson for his first 18 starts.

Others to watch are Asakusa Kings, last year’s Kikkasho winner, and Matsurida Gogh. Asakusa Kings finished eighth in the Emperor’s Cup but it was the White Muzzle colt’s first race in over four months and he was ridden by an inexperienced rider, not the case on Sunday.

Gogh surprised with a win in last year’s Arima Kinen and turned in a stellar workout Wednesday at Miho. The main concern for this Sunday Silence 5-year-old is the left-handed Tokyo track. Matsurida Gogh rules Nakayama, where races are run to the right. In fact, all his nine wins have been to the right. In preparation for the Japan Cup, he has been worked to the left, has gained more ease in switching leads and has learned to hold back at the final turn.

Oken Bruce Lee is another name gaining a good share of attention. Winner in this year’s Kikkasho his last time out, Bruce Lee, at 3, has only seven races to his name, with four wins. A Jungle Pocket colt, it will be his first time over the Tokyo turf.

Of the four from overseas, Papal Bull is being most closely watched. Seventh last year despite a badly flubbed start, he is the charge of Sir Michael Stoute, who has notched two Japan Cup wins in his career. Papal Bull is joined by fellow U.K. runners, Sixties Icon and Purple Moon, a Luca Cumani-trained 5-year-old. Cumani won the JC in 2005 with Alkaased. From the U.S. is Marsh Side, trained by Neil Drysdale and coming off a win of the Canadian International Stakes at Woodbine Oct. 4.

Looking to the numbers, foreign runners have won or come in second in the race every three years over the past decade — Alkaased first in 2005, Falbrav first in 2002 with Sarafan second and Indigenous second in 1999. That would put the overseas four in good standing for a win this year.

In the other years, the win has not always been a purely Japanese one either. Foreign jockeys, permitted to ride on short-term licenses in Japan on Japan-based horses, are always names to watch when looking to pick a winner. Olivier Peslier captured the race in 2001 and 2004 aboard Jungle Pocket and Zenno Rob Roy, respectively. Peslier was also second aboard Pop Rock last year. Fellow Frenchman Christophe Lemaire rode Japanese horses to second-place finishes in both 2004 and 2005 in the JC. This year, Lemaire is paired with Asakusa Kings and Peslier with Tosen Captain, stablemate to Vodka. Italian rider Mirco Demuro will be riding Japan-based Screen Hero.

The entire field in order of post position is: Oken Bruce Lee, Meisho Samson, Tosen Captain, Vodka, Daiwa Wild Boar, Purple Moon, Never Bouchon, Toho Alan, Deep Sky, Osumi Grass One, Sixties Icon, Marsh Side, Matsurida Gogh, Papal Bull, Asakusa Kings, Screen Hero, Admire Monarch, and Cosmo Bulk The race will be televised. In Tokyo, Fuji TV (Ch. 8) will carry racing from 2:30 p.m. Post time for the Japan Cup is 3:20 p.m.

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