02/05/2007 12:00AM

Invasor showed something special

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NEW YORK - Invasor was certainly impressive on Saturday, wasn't he?

Granted, the field that Invasor, our freshly minted Horse of the Year, defeated in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park was not of Grade 1 quality. And it is true that Invasor's winning Beyer Speed Figure of 109 wasn't quite up to the lofty numbers of his last two starts last year. But the story of Invasor's Donn wasn't really about who he beat, or how fast he ran. It was about how he ran.

When Invasor charged up the inside on the far turn, it looked like he was about to win this Donn by a pole. All he needed was room to make a clear run. That, however, turned out to be a bigger problem than anyone could have anticipated. At the top of the stretch, early pacesetter Barcola backed right up into Invasor's face, causing Invasor to be taken up sharply, and perhaps even clip Barcola's heels. As Chatain and Hesanoldsalt looped around this incident to the lead, Invasor, finally with an opening on the rail but with his momentum completely gone, was in a spot that would have undone most any other horse.

You almost never see a horse re-rally successfully up the rail in the stretch after the kind of trouble Invasor had. But Invasor unleashed a furious turn of foot that carried him right past the leaders in deep stretch to a going-away score. Invasor overtook the stretch leaders so quickly, and with such authority, that he was actually taken in hand late. Invasor has now won five Grade 1 stakes from as many starts in this country. And while the Donn wasn't his most important victory on these shores, because he overcame trouble with such aplomb, it was his most visually impressive score here.

Some people are criticizing Invasor's young jockey, Fernando Jara, for putting his mount in a potentially bad situation. Yours truly has never been shy when it comes to noting bad rides. But in this instance, criticizing Jara is unfair. Breaking from post 1, Jara saved ground for much of the way, as he should have. Jara's big decision came leaving the backstretch, and his choice was to either stay inside with Invasor, or move out to launch his big run. At that point, Jara had a horse (Hesanoldsalt) to his outside. Jara probably could have moved out and floated Hesanoldsalt wider without fouling him. But doing that would have resulted in Invasor having to rally at least five wide on the far turn, and that is a position no horse and rider wants to be in at Gulfstream. So, Jara committed to the inside. With reason, he likely expected Barcola would drift out before giving way, as the vast majority of tiring horses will do, opening a hole on the rail. Jara really had no way of anticipating that Barcola would stop as abruptly as he did without first drifting out.

In any event, Invasor will soon be off to Dubai for his scheduled meeting with the world's other best horse, Discreet Cat, in the Dubai World Cup. Regardless of what happens in Dubai, Invasor will be defying the odds if he is able to demonstrate peak form back here during the second half of the season. But there are reasons to hope Invasor might be an exception. He is already a world traveler. He was Horse of the Year in Uruguay, and before he earned the same honor here, he ran in Dubai last year, finishing fourth in the UAE Derby to none other than Discreet Cat in his only career loss.

The list of American-based horses who took a very long time to regain form, or were never the same, after competing in the Dubai World Cup is a long one. It's worth hoping Invasor is an exception, because he is really, really good, and we need him.

Early Derby hints

The two other most noteworthy performances Saturday were those that even at this early date could have significant impact on the Kentucky Derby picture. These performances were Nobiz Like Shobiz's victory in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, and Ravel's score in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita.

Nobiz Like Shobiz was not as brilliant in the Holy Bull as he was when he won the Remsen in his final start at 2. Then again, the Derby is not won in February. So in that context, Nobiz Like Shobiz, by winning, did all he really had to do.

But if there is a concern about Nobiz Like Shobiz, it is that he drifted in through the stretch in the Holy Bull like he did when he was alone on the lead in the stretch of the Remsen. This is probably because of inexperience. As formidable as he already is, if Nobiz Like Shobiz does get his mind on business, it's scary to think how good he might become.

As for Ravel, his one-length victory over Liquidity in the Sham established him as a top-10 Derby prospect, at the very least. Although Ravel is a pricey Fusaichi Pegasus colt from top connections, the Sham was still a very aggressive spot for him. He was coming off only a maiden win at Hollywood Park, and he was in with a stakes-seasoned opponent in Liquidity. But aggressive is precisely what Ravel was down the stretch of the Sham, mastering Liquidity with a determined rally. And there is little doubt that Ravel is only going to get better from here.