02/01/2007 1:00AM

The champ gets back to business

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Invasor, the 2006 Horse of the Year, will start the defense of his title in Saturday's Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Newly crowned Horse of the Year Invasor will have little time to rest on his laurels as he begins the defense of his title Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the $500,000 Donn Handicap. The Grade 1 Donn will be the last of six stakes on an outstanding 11-race program that also features an appearance by turf Eclipse winner Miesque's Approval in the Grade 3, $100,000 Canadian Turf Handiap and the 3-year-old debuts of top Kentucky Derby hopefuls Nobiz Like Shobiz and Scat Daddy.

Invasor won four straight Grade 1 races during his championship season, clinching the older male and Horse of the Year titles with his one-length victory over the heavily favored Bernardini in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Invasor, an Argentine-bred son of Candy Stripes, also won the Pimlico Special, Suburban, and Whitney handicaps for trainer Kiaren McLaughlin and the Shadwell Stable of Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum.

McLaughlin shipped Invasor to his winter base at the Palm Meadows training facility in Boynton Beach in November with the intent of training him in south Florida for the Donn, which he is using as a stepping-stone to the Dubai World Cup on March 31. But the equine herpes quarantines at Calder and Payson Park just before Christmas prompted McLaughlin to call an audible and ship Invasor back to New York for three weeks.

"Even though we sent him up to New York and then brought him back again, everything has gone perfectly for us so far," McLaughlin said. "When we got to New York the weather was perfect, and then we got out of there just in time before the weather got cold and wet."

Invasor has had five works since the Breeders' Cup, four over the Belmont training track and his last, five furlongs in 1:00.80, at Palm Meadows earlier this week.

"I never stopped on him after the Breeders' Cup," said McLaughlin. "I didn't want to stop and have to get him going all over again because it was only 90 days to the Donn. He's doing great and ready to go. He's plenty fit for this race. That won't get him beat.

"It's a handicap and he's carrying 123 pounds, and that's always a concern, but you can't argue the weight when you've got the Horse of the Year," he added. "If he gets beat by a lightweight, so be it. Our main goal right now is Dubai."

Invasor will break from post 1 in the 1 1/8-mile Donn under regular rider Fernando Jara.

Invasor figures to receive his stiffest challenges from Chatain, Magna Graduate, Hesanoldsalt, and Strong Contender. The remainder of the field comprises outsiders A. P. Arrow, Tap Dancing Mauk, Halos Sailing Sain, and Barcola.

Chatain is a lightly raced but very talented 4-year-old who has won 3 of 4 starts, including the Grade 3 Hal's Hope Handicap in his stakes debut here on Jan. 6. Trainer Angel Penna Jr. wrestled with the notion of passing the Donn, but after watching his horse breeze a strong five furlongs in 59.40 seconds at Palm Meadows on Monday, his mind was all but made up to run.

"I really don't want to give him two hard races back to back this early in the year, but he's a tough horse and he's bounced back well from the Hal's Hope," Penna said.

Magna Graduate has started just twice since finishing fourth in the 2006 Dubai World Cup. He was 10th in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4 before rebounding with an impressive 6 1/2-length triumph in Aqueduct's Grade 3 Queens County Handicap on Dec. 9. Magna Graduate finished a tiring fourth after contesting the early pace over a sloppy track in the 2006 Donn.

Strong Contender had a rough trip when fifth behind Chatain in the Hal's Hope in his 2007 debut. A two-time Grade 2 winner last year at 3, Strong Contender suffered some minor injuries from a bumping incident after the start of the Hal's Hope but has recovered well, and trainer John Ward Jr. is expecting a big effort on Saturday.

Hesanoldsalt won the Grade 3 Fred Hooper Handicap at Calder in his 2006 finale and prepped for the Donn with a first-place finish under allowance conditions here on Jan. 12, only to be placed second following a disqualification.