NANJING, China – Emily Hughes, the younger sister of 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, won the short program at the Cup of China on Thursday.

Hughes skated cleanly to music from “Carmen” to compile 56.71 points. She used a less difficult jump combination to move into first after just a fifth-place showing for the short program at Skate America two weeks ago.

“My combination was questionable at Skate America,” said Hughes, who finished seventh at the Turin Olympics. “My triple lutz combination has not been as good as it could be, so we decided to change the combination to the (triple) flip hoping that it would get a higher score, and it did.

“I already did this program once and I knew the parts I had to focus on, and I was really happy the way it turned out.”

In second was Japan’s Yukari Nakano with 54.90 points. Third was former European champion Julia Sebestyen of Hungary, 52.82.

She knows what she will have to do next to stay on top.

“Do another one of those,” Hughes said pointing back to the ice where she did the near-perfect short program. “I am hoping to put out a similar program what I did today.”

The women’s free skate event is Saturday.

Hughes was a late replacement for Michelle Kwan at the 2006 Olympics when Kwan had to withdraw with an injury. Hughes also finished eighth at the world championships.

Olympic ice dance silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto of the United States opened their competitive season by stumbling into second place.

The Americans finished second following the compulsory dance with a slight error that gave them 36.75 points, behind Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin with 36.86.

Domnina and Shabalin were ninth at the Olympics and seventh at worlds.

Third place went to another Russian duo, Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, with 31.61.

Belbin and Agosto said they hoped to do better.

“We have been doing really good all week, but obviously we had a weak performance,” said Belbin. “I had a stumble and we weren’t really all there, but it’s fine for the first time out and we will do much better in the OD (original dance).”

The original dance is set for Friday. The men’s event, which features two-time world bronze medalist Evan Lysacek of the United States, starts Friday.

Belbin and Agosto are looking to make up for a disappointing world championships at the Cup of China.

“We feel good about this season. It has been a challenge getting ready in a short amount of time,” Belbin said. “We are approaching it with a good mental attitude.”

The pair has been busy with tours and exhibitions since the end of the last competition season and didn’t get started on their 2006 routines until August.

After finishing runner-up to Olympic gold medalists Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov in Turin, Belbin and Agosto were expected to win the world championship at Calgary in March after the Russians passed on the event. But the Americans could only muster a third-place finish, while Bulgarians Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski won the world title.

Calgary marked the end of a tumultuous season for the American couple. Canadian-born Belbin was sworn in as a U.S. citizen on Dec. 31, after some assistance from Congress and President George W. Bush, in a rush to get her on the Olympic team.

They started last season with a victory at Skate America, but withdrew from the NHK Trophy, when Agosto pulled a groin muscle, and were unable to participate in last December’s Grand Prix final in Tokyo.

Now, in their first major competition since the world championships in March, they will perform a fun-filled free dance to “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Two-time world champions Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo were in first in pairs with a solid lead of 68.90-62.00 over current world champions and fellow Chinese Pang Qing and Tong Jian.

Zhao returned from a torn Achilles’ tendon in August 2005 to grab the Olympic bronze with his partner.

“I am still just 80 to 90 percent,” Zhao said. “And I still can perform like I did before.”

Before the injury, their skating was highlighted by high lifts, powerful throws and sure jumps. He resumed doing triple jumps just days before the Olympics.

The pairs final is Friday.

AP-ES-11-09-06 1316EST

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