06/25/2007 12:00AM

Rags to Riches now lone real star


NEW YORK - Poor Rags to Riches. She probably has no idea what she is in for.

Unless a truly sensational 2-year-old emerges this year - and I mean one on the order of a Secretariat or a Ruffian - with the announcement Saturday night of the retirement of 2006 Horse of the Year and 2007 Dubai World Cup winner Invasor, the pressure, whether rightly or wrongly, now falls on Rags to Riches to carry the 2007 North American racing season.

The handicap division, which Invasor so thoroughly dominated last year, is now a mess. Oh, there is still some talent in it, thanks to Discreet Cat and Lava Man. But Discreet Cat won't make it back until Saratoga at the earliest, and there is no guarantee he will return at the same high level he demonstrated last year, or that he will even be stretched out to the distances at which the major fall races are run.

Lava Man has a license to improve on a second-place finish in his first start back in this country after a failed attempt at the Dubai Duty Free. But even if Lava Man recaptures his status as boss of Southern California, he has never run well anywhere else.

As for some other prominent members of the handicap division, Flashy Bull, Magna Graduate, Master Command, Molengao, and Corinthian are all very useful performers, but are still far removed from true star material.

The older female division doesn't have anyone even remotely approaching an Azeri. While it is a nice story that the 9-year-old The Tin Man is running well in the turf male division, it is fair to wonder how many big races he really has in him.

Of course, Street Sense and Curlin are still around, and as very nice and already highly accomplished 3-year-old colts, they have the potential to emerge. But as Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense showed when beaten in the Preakness and Blue Grass, and as Preakness winner Curlin showed when he lost the Belmont Stakes to Rags to Riches, neither is infallible. Consequently, it is difficult to rely on either to save a racing season.

So, it's up to Rags to Riches. She is undefeated this year, and has in fact never lost a race at seven furlongs or longer. Her victory in the Belmont Stakes, the first by a filly in more than a century, was her fourth straight Grade 1 win, and enabled her to be the first horse of 2007 to wrap up a divisional championship. With her history-making ability, charisma, and the fact that she has already captured the public's imagination, Rags to Riches is really the only known horse in the country who can rescue the 2007 racing season from being entirely forgettable.

This is the kind of unfortunate void the retirement of Invasor has left on the national racing scene. But while Invasor's retirement is hugely disappointing, it should not have come as a complete surprise. After Invasor competed in the Dubai Cup last March, some people had already begun girding themselves against the possibilities of Invasor never racing again, or racing at a decidedly lower level. These folks prepared for the worst because the list of U.S.-based horses who never raced again after the Dubai Cup, or were never the same if they did perform again, is much longer than those who were as effective afterwards as they were before going overseas.

It is important to stress that Invasor had a much bigger reason - maybe even obligation - to compete in the Dubai Cup than perhaps any other U.S. horse before him. He is, after all, owned by Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, a member of the ruling family of Dubai. The sesamoid injury that caused Invasor's retirement might have no link whatsoever to the fact that he competed in the Dubai Cup. But none of this changes the bottom line, which is that it was simply against the odds for even as fine a horse as Invasor to return to the U.S. and perform at a high level of efficiency.

It has been done, but not often. Cigar did it, as did Formal Gold and Victory Gallop, although Victory Gallop's post-Dubai Cup career was alarmingly abbreviated. Silver Charm, Aptitude, Behrens, Pleasantly Perfect, and Magna Graduate all eventually regained a semblance of past form after competing in the Dubai Cup, but each needed time to regain form, and in a couple of cases, many, many months were needed.

But that list is dwarfed by this one: Brass Hat, Wilko, Super Frolic, Roses in May, Dynever, Congrats, Lundy's Liability, Medaglia d'Oro, Domestic Dispute, Fleetstreet Dancer, Harlan's Holiday, Blue Burner, Captain Steve, Saint's Honor, Public Purse, Puerto Madero, Malek, Sandpit, Siphon, and Soul of the Matter. Not one of these horses won after competing in the Dubai Cup, and several never even raced again. And now, Invasor is the newest addition to this list.

In the case of Invasor, there is no finger-pointing or blame game, because for him, competing in the Dubai Cup was not a money grab at the risk of another championship campaign. He had to run in it. But even knowing that doesn't lessen the blow of his departure, for Invasor will be sorely, sorely missed.