03/28/2007 12:00AM

England's ex-champ Sir Percy finally fit again

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The 2006 Epsom Derby winner races Saturday in the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic, a victim of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately.

Sir Percy went unbeaten in four starts in 2005, winning the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes and earning championship honors as England’s best 2-year-old. Second to George Washington in the English 2000 Guineas, his first start at 3, he returned a month later to give trainer Marcus Tregoning his first Epsom Derby win – and then fell off the map.

Out of action between the June 3 Derby and Oct. 14, Sir Percy barely got back in the game when he made his comeback, finishing seventh of eight in the Champion Stakes on Oct. 14 at Newmarket.

“He ran a little bit below par – well, quite a bit below par, but there you go,” Tregoning said this week. “We tried.”

They are trying again Saturday, but who really knows what to expect at this point. Tregoning believes Sir Percy is coming into the Sheema Classic – which would be the race of the night Saturday but for the Discreet Cat- Invasor showdown in the World Cup itself – a sounder horse than he was much of last year.

“He got jarred in the 2000 Guineas, and we couldn’t do a lot with him between then and the Derby,” Tregoning said. “It was tough just to make that race. We got him there, and obviously we got the right result, which was fantastic.”

Sir Percy had a planned vacation early in the summer, but things did not go smoothly when Tregoning began gearing him up again.

“We didn’t have a good run when we brought him back,” said Tregoning. “A few things went wrong, niggling muscle problems. At the end, we thought the core fitness maybe wasn’t there because we’d missed so much work, we’d been stopping and starting so much. A few weeks after the Champion Stakes, we started to get him back up to speed to come here. It’s been straightaway this time. We’ve had a much clearer time of it.”

But Tregoning can’t say whether Sir Percy might go on to accomplish things at 4 like he did at 2 and 3, or if he simply developed earlier than many of his contemporaries.

“There’s always a chance of that,” he said. “He’s 15 [hands], 3 this horse. He’s not big, and he didn’t change that much. But all I can say is he’s fit and he’s right, and he’s moving great.”

Travels with Lava Man

Lava Man’s shipping problems began before the racing public at large had gotten wind of him. Claimed for $50,000 in August 2004, Lava Man was starting to evolve into a stakes-class horse when trainer Doug O’Neill sent him from California to Gulfstream Park for the Sunshine Millions Classic in January 2005. Lava Man flopped, finishing a distant seventh, foreshadowing the issue that continues to dog him – an apparent inability to win outside of California. There, Lava Man has won 12 of his last 13 starts, accomplishing things – like winning the Santa Anita Handicap two years in a row – that have been done only by legendary horses.

But mixed into the California streak are these performances: seventh, beaten 45 lengths in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park; 11th, beaten 17 lengths in the Japan Cup Dirt; and seventh, beaten 15 lengths last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

“Well, it gets to a point when you say, Why is it happening? Because he’s not really a bad shipper,” said assistant trainer Leandro Mora, who has traveled with Lava Man on every journey except the one to New York.

Lava Man, who trains on Cushion Track at home at Hollywood Park, has stayed exclusively on grass since coming to Dubai. Foot problems have hampered him in the past, Mora said, and the idea is to keep Lava Man on the most forgiving surface available.

On Wednesday, Lava Man – who has trained strongly all week – got in a final blowout for the $5 million Dubai Duty Free, going a quarter-mile on turf in about 26 seconds at the end of a regular gallop.

Mora is hoping that this is the race where Lava Man puts to rest the knock against him.

“He does ship well most of the time – but this time he was much, much, much better,” he said.

Quijano: Long time, no losses

The German horse Quijano lost his career debut on March 25, 2005, finishing fifth at odds of 1-2 in a 1 1/8-mile maiden race at Dortmund. The race is worth noting because Quijano hasn’t lost since.

Away from the races for more than a year after coming out of that first start with a microfracture in his leg, Quijano has won 10 consecutive starts, including three stakes here during Dubai’s Winter Carnival. Facing ever-tougher competition – as well as a compromising pace scenario on the March 1 Dubai City of Gold – Quijano has followed the path trainer Peter Schiergen laid out when he decided to send Quijano to Dubai. The final step comes Saturday in the Sheema Classic.

Schiergen, once a top rider, has sent horses to the Arlington Million, and is one of several German trainers who regularly campaign on the international circuit. His wife and assistant, Gisela, said Schiergen had that kind of race in mind all along for Quijano, but took his time getting there. Quijano had never won in a Group stakes before the City of Gold.

“We decided we will do it easily for him,” Gisela Schiergen said. “We wanted to start with a low handicap in Dubai, and if he had won a [major] race in Germany, it would have looked much different.”

Quijano has won over soft turf in Germany and firmer footing here, and though he typically rallies from mid-pack, he won the City of Gold from just behind a false pace.

“I think he’s a smart horse, and he knows what you want from him,” Schiergen said. “He must be something special to win all the time.”

McLaughlin’s one worry: No Lasix for Invasor

The Nad Al Sheba railbirds – and yes, there is such a creature – have gazed in awe all week at Invasor, and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin liked what he saw Tuesday morning when he got his first look at Invasor’s Dubai training.

“He looks fantastic,” McLaughlin said, after watching Invasor turn in a routine gallop.

McLauglin fancies his chances of turning the tables on Discreet Cat, who gave Invasor the only loss of his career here last year in the UAE Derby – but he did make note of the fact that the Dubai race was the last time Invasor started without the anti-bleeder medication Lasix, which isn’t permitted here.

“The only worry I have is the lack of Lasix,” McLaughlin said. “That’s the only shame, because he’s undefeated on Lasix. He’s not a bleeder, though. We’re okay with it.”