02/01/2007 1:00AM

Once unknown, Invasor now leads pack

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Bill Denver/Equiphotos
At Palm Meadows, Kiaran McLaughlin is flanked by his stars of 2006: Invasor (left) and Jazil.

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin did not know what to expect when a bay colt arrived in his barn a little more than a year ago from Uruguay. The horse had won all his races, was training well, and his exercise rider kept coming back with good reviews. But a veterinarian from Chile happened by his barn one morning at Palm Meadows and threw ice water on his hopes.

"He might have been beating $10,000 claimers," McLaughlin remembers being told. "Good luck."

Invasor proved a bit better than that. He won all four of his starts in the United States last year, concluding with the Breeders' Cup Classic, and last week was named the 2006 Horse of the Year. When Invasor made his first start in this country, in last year's Pimlico Special, he was the fourth choice in a field of five. When he runs on Saturday, in the Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, he will do so as the reigning Horse of the Year and champion older horse, and should be a heavy favorite.

From unknown to renown, all in a year.

"I really couldn't imagine all this," McLaughlin said at his Palm Meadows barn the other morning. "I have to give all the credit to Sheikh Hamdan," he said of the Dubai deputy ruler, who races as Shadwell Stable. "One of his representatives was in Uruguay looking for endurance horses to buy. He was told he needed to look at this horse, too, and Sheikh Hamdan had the foresight to buy him."

McLaughlin got Invasor at 3 in December 2005, and a year ago had him training with his better

3-year-olds, Jazil and Flashy Bull.

"I was just trying to get a line on him," McLaughlin said. "He did just enough in his works. My rider kept telling me, 'I've got a lot of horse left.' "

Invasor took one misstep, in the United Arab Emirates Derby, before going on a four-race win streak. His victory in the Classic capped a sensational year for McLaughlin, who got his first win in a Triple Crown race when Jazil won the Belmont Stakes and sent out his first Eclipse Award winner.

"It was very satisfying," McLaughlin said. "But it probably won't sink in for a while. One day I'm sure my grandkids will get tired of me talking about 2006."

McLaughlin's skills as a trainer were on display with Jazil, and then Invasor. Jazil won the Belmont Stakes off a five-week layoff, and then Invasor won the Classic despite not having raced for 90 days. After winning the Whitney at Saratoga, Invasor was scheduled to face Bernardini in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. But he became ill a little more than a week before that race, forcing McLaughlin to train Invasor straight into the Classic.

The Classic was regarded as a showdown for Horse of the Year between Bernardini, Invasor, and Lava Man. Invasor beat Bernardini by one length. For McLaughlin, it was a great professional accomplishment, and a great personal one, too. He is sincerely fond of Sheikh Hamdan, for whom McLaughlin has trained for more than 15 years, including 10 when he spent six months per year in Dubai.

"It was great. Very satisfying," McLaughlin said. "Sheikh Hamdan is a special man. I'm sure people get tired of me always bringing that up, but when you live with someone half the year for 10 years, when you've sat on his couch every day during that time, you get close. What do you get for a man like that? He owns a country! Getting Horse of the Year was special. With him, it's not about the money. Horse of the Year is bigger than one race."

As with the Breeders' Cup Classic, Invasor heads into the Donn off a 90-day layoff. The Donn will serve as Invasor's prep for the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 31 in Sheikh Hamdan's home country.

"The main objective is the World Cup," McLaughlin said. "That's the biggest thing. What we do after that will depend on a lot of things, but he probably wouldn't run back quickly.

"We gave him a week after the Breeders' Cup to jog, but we didn't want to stop on him because he was going to be coming back in 90 days for the Donn," he said. "If he gets beat Saturday, it won't be because of fitness. It's a handicap, and he's got to give weight, but you can't argue with that when you have the Horse of the Year."