03/29/2007 12:00AM

Clash of the titans in World Cup

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Invasor, training in Dubai on Thursday, lost to Discreet Cat in last year's UAE Derby, but that was before he became Horse of the Year.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The older section of Dubai, packed tight with shops, apartments, and cafes, has narrow twisting streets and pedestrian byways winding between buildings. But they are no more complex than the paths followed by the two best horses in the Dubai World Cup.

Invasor was bred in Argentina and became a champion in Uruguay before Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum of Dubai bought him, eventually sending him to the United States, where he was named Horse of the Year in 2006. Discreet Cat was born and raised in Kentucky, debuted at Saratoga, was purchased by Godolphin, and came to Dubai to win the 2006 United Arab Emirates Derby before returning to America to win three straight races, including the Grade 1 Cigar Mile. Invasor has lost once in 11 races; Discreet Cat is unbeaten after six starts. The $6 million Dubai World Cup will be worth watching if for no other reason than to see this clash of titans.

But there is plenty more on the menu. The World Cup, the world's richest race, is the last of six Thoroughbred stakes worth a total of $21 million Saturday night at Nad Al Sheba racecourse. While the World Cup goes with just seven expected runners, there are three races with 16 horses, another with 15, and one with 12. The list of entries includes winners of four 2006 Breeders' Cup races - Invasor, Miesque's Approval, Red Rocks, and Thor's Echo - besides an assortment of international stars, including last year's Epsom Derby winner, Sir Percy. Post time for the first Thoroughbred race is 5:40 p.m. local time (9:40 a.m. Eastern); the World Cup is scheduled to go off at 9:30 p.m. local time (1:30op.m. Eastern). Races will be televised live on HRTV, and replays of the World Cup and the UAE Derby will be shown on tape delay by ABC at 2:30 p.m.

Discreet Cat and Invasor both are expected to campaign in the U.S. later this year, and both have Dubai-based ownership, but the two horses are of much different types. Discreet Cat is lighter-framed and has more natural speed: He ran six furlongs in 1:09.60 in his 2-year-old debut, and has been timed in 1:21.40 for seven furlongs and 1:32.40 for a mile.

"When he ran in America, I would have liked to see him not in the front, but always he liked to be in front," said Saeed bin Suroor, Discreet Cat's trainer.

Invasor has won at 5 1/2 furlongs, but has grown into a bull of a horse whose greatest asset might be unwavering stamina.

"He's very unusual in that he never blows at all," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "He can go a mile and a quarter in the Breeders' Cup - he's cooled out in five minutes. That's something that you can't measure by looking. He does everything effortlessly."

Invasor, whose lone loss came at the hands of Discreet Cat here last winter, has won five times at distances of 1 3/16 miles and greater, but the World Cup, which at 2,000 meters is just short of 1 1/4 miles, will be Discreet Cat's first start beyond 1 1/8 miles. He will be trying to stay the distance despite having missed a planned prep race on March 1 at Nad Al Sheba because of an elevated temperature, the latest of several hiccups in Discreet Cat's career.

Discreet Cat breaks from post 1, Invasor from post 7, but some between them have a chance at an upset. Third choice in American wagering should be Premium Tap, who was more than three lengths behind Invasor in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but came back to win the Grade 1 Clark by more than seven lengths. Subsequently purchased by Saudi Arabian interests, he easily won going 1 1/2 miles Feb. 16 in a major Saudi stakes race.

"I think he's a different horse than the one Invasor beat in the Breeders' Cup," said trainer John Kimmel. "He ran a good race, but it wasn't his best race. In the Clark, he ran lights out, and I think that's the horse you'll see."

Forty Licks, another Saudi horse, finished fourth behind Premium Tap last month, but trainer Ian Jory said the 1 1/2-mile distance was too far for his horse. Kandidate, who has speed, won Round 2 of the Maktoum Challenge over the Nad Al Sheba main track by more than six lengths on Feb. 2, while Bullish Luck, a Hong Kong-based horse, makes his dirt debut. Vermilion, who carries Japan's hopes, won his two most recent races by a combined 12 lengths, and trainer Sei Ishizaka said a fourth-place finish in the Japan Cup last November was excusable.

"It was after a break, so maybe he hadn't established enough condition," Ishizaka said. "He's a better horse now than ever before."

He had better be - because these are the best dirt horses in the world.