11/06/2006 12:00AM

Invasor's late surge beats Bernardini

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The three leading candidates for Horse of the Year gathered at Churchill Downs on Saturday for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, and at the end of an emotionally draining day that captured the extreme highs and the lows of the sport, Invasor proved that he is the best.

Invasor, who had not raced for three months, unleashed a powerful closing charge down the center of the track, caught favored Bernardini with a sixteenth of a mile to go, and pulled away for a one-length victory in 2:02.18 for 1 1/4 miles on the fast main track. Bernardini finished second, 2 1/2 lengths in front of Premium Tap.

Invasor ($15.40) gave trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, jockey Fernando Jara, and owner Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum's Shadwell Stable their second high-profile victory of the year. They also won the Belmont Stakes with Jazil.

Jara, 18, became the youngest rider to win a Breeders' Cup race. The Classic was the first Breeders' Cup win for both Jara and McLaughlin.

The win should clinch both Horse of the Year and champion older horse for Invasor, a 4-year-old son of Candy Stripes and Quendom, who won 4 of 5 starts this year. His lone loss came in the UAE Derby, which was won by Discreet Cat. Invasor's previous victories came in the Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap, and Whitney Handicap, all Grade 1's. He missed the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and a potential match with Bernardini, because of a minor illness.

"He's really come on a lot the last 90 days," McLaughlin said. "Fernando rode a great race. He was in the two path in the first turn from post 11. For sure he's the best older horse, maybe Horse of the Year."

Bernardini, who was sent off the even-money favorite off the strength of six straight wins, including the Preakness Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup, ran well in defeat and should be named champion 3-year-old, though there will be considerable sentimental support for injured Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. Bernardini is owned by Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Hamdan's brother. Both are members of the ruling family of Dubai.

Earlier in the day, Pine Island suffered a fatal breakdown in the Distaff, a race in which Fleet Indian suffered a career-ending ligament injury. Javier Castellano rode Pine Island and fell heavily. But he shook it off and came back to ride Bernardini. A crowd of 75,132, the third-largest in the 23-year history of the Breeders' Cup, attended on a cold, gray, though dry afternoon.

The races were run over a main track that largely favored the inside. The rail was clearly the place to be for most of the day, and affected the races to such a degree that the first four Breeders' Cup races on the dirt were won by horses who broke from and stayed near the rail.

The Classic was the last of the eight Breeders' Cup races. Bernardini was favored, with Invasor and Lava Man - his two rivals for Horse of the Year - next at 6-1. Lava Man had more money bet to win on him, making him the second choice.

Having seen the rail bias of early in the day, jockey Alex Solis sent Brother Derek, who drew the rail, away from the gate with authority. Brother Derek set fractions of 23.12 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 46.60 for a half-mile, and 1:11.11 for six furlongs while hounded by Lawyer Ron and Lava Man. That sharp pace helped set things up for Invasor and Bernardini, who rallied into a final half-mile that took more than 51 seconds.

Bernardini, who was between horses going around the first turn, went outside in order to advance down the backstretch. He did not look comfortable, however, and was being urged by Castellano to hold his position. Invasor, meanwhile, was farther back and nearer the rail until launching his winning bid.

As the field roared around the far turn and into the lane, Brother Derek was trying to hold off the onrushing Bernardini, who had finally taken hold of the bit and loomed menacingly while three paths wide. Bernardini moved past Brother Derek, and lightly brushed with him.

As soon as Bernardini got the lead, Invasor came charging at him. Bernardini led narrowly past the eighth pole in 1:36.59, but Invasor had too much momentum.

Lava Man again ran poorly outside California, which he had done three previous times. Trainer Doug O'Neill said Lava Man would return to California and remain there.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch