11/07/2006 12:00AM

Lessons from the Breeders' Cup


Not only did Invasor take the Horse of the Year title away from Bernardini when he edged to the lead inside the final sixteenth of a mile of the Breeders' Cup Classic, he also took the "Superhorse" label away from the talented 3-year-old.

Bernardini ran a good race - probably good enough to hold off the absent Barbaro from the 3-year-old championship - but he did not live up to the hype that had been building around him as he swept through a depleted 3-year-old division in summer stakes at Saratoga and three moderate rivals in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Yes, he won those races without having to dig down deep into his reserves, but if there is a handicapping lesson to be learned from the outcome, it is to distrust the potential of an effortless winner when he is put to a sterner test.

Invasor had been absent for three months, but trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is a reliable horseman with success on the big stage (see the 2006 Belmont Stakes, which he won with Jazil) and Invasor's three Grade 1 victories in the U.S. were marked by testing circumstances.

In the Pimlico Special on May 19 - his first U.S. start - Invasor's jockey, Ramon Dominguez, lost his hold on the reins while having to outfinish Wanderin Boy, the same 5-year-old front-runner that Bernardini eventually would have to beat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. In the Suburban Handicap at Belmont in July - when ridden for the first time by the outstanding young jockey Fernando Jara - Invasor overcame a troubled start and some bumping to score by 4 1/4 widening lengths in a performance just about as dominating as any turned in by Bernardini. In the Whitney, Invasor stumbled again leaving the gate and outfinished a dead fit, fast-closing Sun King in one of the toughest stretch battles of the year.

Bernardini entered the BC Classic as a legitimate favorite, with a 3- or 4-point advantage in the Beyer Figs, but at even-money odds vs. 6-1 for the battle-tested, three-time Grade-1 winning horse with the second best figs, there were sound reasons to go for the better price.

Beyond the Classic, which was run in near darkness over a racing strip that was wet down and manicured after the Distaff to help neutralize a strong inside rail bias that had been a major factor in the other dirt races, here are some other observations.

* The two stakes preceding the eight BC events were won by front-runners Maryfield and It's No Joke, respectively, as both horses rode a fast rail path to set the tone for the day's dirt races.

* In the 1 1/16-mile BC Juvenile Fillies, Dreaming of Anna took the lead before the first turn and stayed marginally in front, taking control of the rail on the backstretch, spurting clear late from a fit and ready Octave, who had been inside for seven furlongs, before coming out to launch a strong bid in the upper stretch.

The undefeated winner, a relatively small filly who can handle dirt or turf, has good overall speed and a strong late gear, a combination that few horses of any age or sex possess. Appealing Zophie, who finished fourth, was hung out to dry chasing the winner. Third-place finisher Cotton Blossom also wasted her best bid while making a wide final turn. Cash Included, the betting favorite, faltered despite riding the rail in mid-pack most of the way.

* In a roughly run BC Juvenile, Street Sense was well back on the inside and powered his way along the rail to an impressive 10-length victory while many others in the field fanned out wide entering the stretch. Trainer Carl Nafzger has a legit Derby horse on his hands. But the same may be true for others who finished well behind the winner.

Second-place finisher Circular Quay, a lazy beginner who might need blinkers, was bothered early, but finished second after a very wide rally. Great Hunter had a horrible trip, getting bounced about before launching a wide move for a brief lead turning for home. Fourth-place finisher Scat Daddy, inside early but wide for the last seven furlongs, tried hard but tired in the stretch. Almost every other horse in the field had a traffic-related or path-related excuse for a poor finish. An exception was Stormello, on the pace inside of Principle Secret before giving way after seven furlongs to finish fifth. Principle Secret was eased out of the race after losing the lead to Stormello on the turn.

* In the BC Sprint, Thor's Echo rode the inside path from post 1 behind Bordonaro, who was locked in a duel with wide running Attila's Storm through the first half-mile. Approaching the stretch, Thor's Echo moved out to challenge those two and quickly opened up a clear lead to score a dominating victory. Second-place finisher Friendly Island closed ground along the inside before continuing forward in the middle of the track with wide-running Nightmare Affair. Friendly Island and Nightmare Affair did well under the conditions to edge Bordonaro for second and third, respectively.

* In the tragedy-marred BC Distaff, second choice Pine Island broke a leg and had to be humanely destroyed, while favored Fleet Indian was pulled up in distress after failing to show her customary speed. Meanwhile, Round Pond made two forward moves along the rail to score by 4 1/2 lengths over a tightly grouped pack of stretch runners, including Asi Siempre, Happy Ticket, Balletto, and Lemons Forever. Asi Siempre, blocked while racing inside behind the surging winner, was disqualified from second to fourth after she came out sharply to exchange bumps with Balletto. Sharp Lisa, close up for a mile, gave way with no real excuse. Healthy Addiction had the rail and the lead, and Spun Sugar had the rail in mid-pack, but both turned in poor efforts.

Round Pond was the fourth straight dirt race winner who broke from post 1.

* In the turf races, Ouija Board left no doubt she is the best turf filly or mare in the western world as she cruised to a 2 1/2-length victory in the BC Filly and Mare Turf with a decisive run from seventh to first entering the stretch. The useful Film Maker rallied inside for second, while second choice Wait a While turned in a surprisingly flat performance behind third-place finisher Honey Ryder.

* In the BC Turf at 12 furlongs, 5-2 favorite Hurricane Run confirmed that he was over the top with a lackluster sixth-place finish as European-based 3-year-old Red Rocks added to the belief that Rail Link, winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France last month, is the best turf horse in the world. Prior to his BC Turf win, Red Rocks's best credential was a solid second-place finish to Rail Link in the Grand Prix de Paris during the summer.

Better Talk Now, the 2004 BC Turf winner, rallied strongly to just miss, while the highly rated American duo of English Channel and Cacique finished third and 10th, respectively, with no apparent excuse.

* In the BC Mile, American-based Miesque's Approval - or rather his trainer Martin Wolfson - completed a feat almost unprecedented in the past 20 years: He dramatically improved upon the work of Hall of Fame trainer Billy Mott, a living legend with turf horses. Miesque's Approval, now 7, had been trained by Mott earlier in his career but was turned over to Wolfson after failing to hit the board in a $50,000 claimer at Aqueduct a year and a day before his 2006 BC triumph.

A stakes winner over the Churchill turf course in July, Miesque's Approval unleashed a powerful burst of speed through the stretch to beat a tightly bunched group of six horses by 2 3/4 lengths. Aragorn edged Badge of Silver for second; Badge of Silver edged Sleeping Indian (4th), Rob Roy (5th), Silent Name (6th), and Gorella (7th). Favored Araafa faded to eighth after making a brief bid in the upper stretch.

The bottom line is that Churchill Downs may be a great venue for the Breeders' Cup, but track management must take steps to avoid running the year's most important dirt races over a severely biased racing strip.