02/02/2008 1:00AM

McLaughlin holds another ace in Donn

Daaher is no Horse of the Year, but his trainer is confident.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - A year ago, Kiaran McLaughlin came into the $500,000 Donn Handicap about as confident as any trainer could be before a Grade 1 race. But then again, not many trainers have had the privilege of running a champion like Invasor.

McLaughlin will be back at Gulfstream Park on Saturday to defend his title in the 1 1/8-mile Donn - without Invasor, but nearly as confident in his newest handicap star, Daaher.

Daaher will carry high weight of 120 pounds and is one of three Grade 1 winners in a well-balanced field that also includes 2006 Donn winner Brass Hat, Einstein, Spring at Last, and the Todd Pletcher-trained pair of A. P. Arrow and Fairbanks. The outsiders Dr Googles Boogles, Kiss the Kid, and Wood Be Willing complete the field.

The Donn will mark Daaher's first start since he upset Eclipse Award winner Midnight Lute in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile on Nov. 24. Daaher, a son of Awesome Again, earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 114 for the Cigar, his most important victory. That number is second-best in this lineup, trailing only the 115 posted by Fairbanks for his victory last year in the Grade 3 Tokyo City Handicap at Santa Anita.

The Cigar Mile was Daaher's third straight victory since McLaughlin added blinkers to his equipment after taking over the colt's training last summer at Saratoga.

"I've never seen a horse move up so much with blinkers," said McLaughlin. "It's been incredible."

Daaher has been on or with the pace in each of his wins since getting blinkers, and even though there is other speed in the Donn, McLaughlin said there's a good chance his colt will be the one to catch under jockey Mike Luzzi.

"I'm going to leave it up to Mike," said McLaughlin. "One of Todd's two has speed, and while it's not like he's got a rabbit, we'll have to see how things unfold. I still think we're the main speed, and I'm hoping our horse will jump out of there and control the pace."

While McLaughlin admits his situation coming into the Donn is a bit different from a year ago, he still wouldn't trade places with anybody on Saturday.

"Obviously Invasor was a very special horse," said McLaughlin. "With him it was just a matter of getting him over to the gate, and I thought he'd win it. Daaher isn't quite as proven, but I'm almost equally as confident because he's been doing fabulous coming into the race.

"But there are a few question marks to answer, including the extra weight he picks up and getting the distance at this level. He's won going a mile and one-eighth, but this company is a lot different. He's got the pedigree for it, so I'm not really too worried the distance will be a problem."

Brass Hat circled the field en route to a 4 3/4-length victory over a sloppy track in the 2006 Donn. He then shipped to Dubai, where he finished second in the Dubai World Cup. He subsequently was disqualified because of a medication violation.

Brass Hat, now 7, started just once more that season before taking a year off. He has won 2 of 6 starts on the comeback trail, including the Massachusetts Handicap.

"He's doing well and training forwardly for the race," said trainer Buff Bradley. "It certainly would be nice to come back here and repeat. It's a tough field, but I'm confident the way he's coming up to the race, and he always seems to run well after a little time off."

Einstein posted his Grade 1 win on grass in the 2006 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap. The versatile son of Spend a Buck was given eight months off after being involved in a spill during the Grade 2 Dixie last spring at Pimlico, returning with a game one-length victory against a strong allowance field over the turf here on Jan. 11.

"We always wanted to try him back on dirt, and if it's wet, look out," said trainer Helen Pitts.

Southern California invader Spring at Last will also return to dirt off an allowance win on grass at Santa Anita. That was Spring at Last's first start since he captured the Godolphin Mile at Nad Al Sheba nine months earlier. Trained by Doug O'Neill, Spring at Last also finished second in the Grade 1 Malibu at 3 in 2006 and in the Grade 2 Strub last winter.

A. P. Arrow and Fairbanks have been idle since finishing first and fifth in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 23. They complement each other well, with Fairbanks a speed horse and A. P. Arrow at his best from just off the lead.