08/06/2006 11:00PM

Invasor and Jara proved their mettle


NEW YORK - Now, I am a believer.

I have become a believer in Invasor, who won his third straight Grade 1 event from as many starts in this country in Saturday's Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. And I have also become a believer in jockey Fernando Jara, who teamed with Invasor again Saturday, and who at the ripe old age of 18 has quickly established himself as one of the best money riders in the business.

Buying into Invasor at this point is like showing up late to the party, because the fact that he was a strong second choice in the betting on the Whitney at 8-5 proves that there are already a lot of people who recognize how really good he is. On the other hand, being top of the heap in Uruguay, as Invasor was last year, doesn't necessarily carry great currency here. And while the first two races Invasor won in this country, the Pimlico Special and the Suburban Handicap, are prestigious events with great histories, they were not strong events. So, even if it wasn't an especially popular position, there were valid reasons to be a bit reserved about Invasor's quality.

But not anymore. The field in the Whitney was about as good as you can ask for these days for a major handicap race in the eastern third of the country. The Whitney didn't have Commentator, last year's Whitney winner, who came back with a big win in his first start this year. This Whitney did, however, have Flower Alley, who had a license to stake claim to the top of his class off wins last year in the Jim Dandy and Travers and an excellent second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. It also had, among others, the sometimes very effective Sun King. So the Whitney, unlike the Suburban in particular, was no gimme for Invasor.

Invasor also conceded his Whitney foes a big advantage right away when he stumbled out of the gate. That cost him meaningful early position, and forced him into working harder in the early stages, and into a much tougher trip than he might have otherwise had. In view of this, if Invasor weren't a good horse, he wouldn't have won.

In moving early, and between horses, Invasor forced the hand of Flower Alley sooner than his connections probably would have liked. After hanging in to upper stretch, Flower Alley came up shockingly empty as a result of the backstretch and far-turn pressure that Invasor put him under. That hard work could have also emptied Invasor's tank. Instead, Invasor met the stretch challenge of the late-running Sun King, for whom the Whitney unfolded perfectly, and gamely turned him back. Invasor might have won by only a bob of the head, but he was much better than his win margin of a nose would suggest.

Although it wouldn't have mattered if he didn't have a willing accomplice, Jara's ride was a major ingredient in Invasor's victory. So many jockeys today like to wait and wait and wait some more out of fear of being criticized for moving too soon, even if the circumstances call for it. But perhaps because he is so young, Jara seems fearless. He allowed Invasor to settle after his rough start, and then aggressively moved him down the backstretch. In doing so, Jara put his main Whitney competition on paper, Flower Alley, under the gun. And after his timely move burned the run out of Flower Alley, Jara would not be outridden in his stretch duel with Sun King. Jara received a lot of deserving plaudits for his winning ride on Jazil for the same connections in the Belmont Stakes. Jara's performance in the Whitney was of identical quality.

As compelling as Invasor was, it's hard not to feel a little bad for Sun King and his trainer, Nick Zito. Sun King was also beaten in a photo in the Metropolitan Handicap in late May, and the Whitney and Met Mile are two immensely prestigious New York races that native New Yorker Zito would probably give his left arm to win anytime. And for Sun King, it's an enormous distinction between being remembered as a horse who won the Pennsylvania Derby and a horse who won the Whitney and the Met Mile, where he fell about a combined six inches short.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who is certain that Flower Alley is a much better horse than he showed Saturday and who believes Flower Alley was simply a short horse after having had only one prep race since the Breeders' Cup, got his Grade 1 victory of the weekend with Bluegrass Cat in Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Bluegrass Cat was much the best on paper in the Haskell, and was even better than that in the running. Although it was probably preferable to be off the rail on the main track at Monmouth on Sunday, Bluegrass Cat redefined what an outside trip is by running about five wide around the first turn and about four wide around the far turn. Yet, despite running nearly 1 1/4 miles in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell, Bluegrass Cat still scored by seven easy lengths. But whether that makes him a legitimate threat to Bernardini, who wowed so many people with the way he won the Preakness and last week's Jim Dandy, might be another matter entirely.