06/24/2007 11:00PM

A reign ends prematurely

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The career-ending injury to the reigning Horse of the Year, Invasor, has cut loose a familiar round of hand-wringing recriminations, as fans and industry leaders scan a Chinese menu worth of choices in their efforts to wrestle with the why. Take your pick:

Invasor's retirement rams one more nail into the coffin of the Thoroughbred breed, giving aid and comfort to the notion that the species has become as frail as newborn kittens. Or . . .

Invasor broke a sesamoid bone in his right hind ankle because he was a very classy but inherently unsound racehorse who was delicately though perfectly managed during a fleeting North American-based career that ended with one final, powerful performance in Dubai. Or . . .

Invasor is finished because the economic pressures on a potential stallion to win every race are so great that he was conservatively campaigned, requiring a disproportionate amount of hard training compared to actual racing.

When a horse like Invasor leaves the stage, having failed to make a domestic appearance for several months, followers of the game have every right to greet the news with one of those wise-guy reactions: "I didn't even know he was still in training."

Boy was he in training, and training like a true champ. It was the 59 and change at Belmont the other day that did him in, his sixth recorded move since winning in Dubai and one week shy of his scheduled return to competition in the Suburban Handicap.

Similar news was received in June of 2005 when 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper was retired (sesamoid, left fore) after winning the Met Mile. The two champs present a similar career profile - precious little racing and a whole lot of training. Veteran horsemen tend to agree, at least in principle, that such a mix is not the ideal.

"It's the constant repetition of training," said Hall of Famer Bill Mott, trainer of the 1995 and 1996 Horse of the Year, Cigar. "After a while, it becomes a matter of how many times can you hit the ground. In these horses with short careers, it only stands to reason they're training a lot more than they're racing. Fresh horses run well, sure, but you'd like to lead them over there a little more often."

Charlie Whittingham broached the same subject during the winter of 1973 when he was pointing champion Cougar II for the Santa Anita Handicap on a four-month gap in races.

"Training a horse like that is harder on them than running them," Whittingham said. "A horse can go sour, and you've got just as much of a chance at hurting them in a workout as in a race."

The sport in North America had come to rely upon sturdy South Americans to do a lot of the heavy lifting at the top of the game. The powerful mares Bayakoa, Paseana, and Riboletta made 49 starts among them during their five championship campaigns between 1989 and 2000. The remarkable stablemates of the mid-1990s - Sandpit, Gentlemen and Siphon - had 64 starts during their North American careers, with 17 major stakes wins to their credit. Their durability could trace as much to their trainer, Richard Mandella, than to their origins in Argentina and Brazil, although Mandella would be the first to point out that they arrived as hardy creatures who could clearly stand the gaff.

The best of the more recent South Americans seem to be flowing from a single spout, and the taste is becoming familiar. Invasor, a son of Candy Stripes, was 2006 Horse of the Year off four starts. Leroidesanimaux, also by Candy Stripes, needed just four races to be 2005 champion male turf horse. Candy Ride, who is out of a Candy Stripes mare, turned in the single most impressive performance by an older horse in winning the 2003 Pacific Classic. He made only three North American starts before retiring.

The best South American currently doing business in Southern California will be on display this Saturday in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup. Molengao, winner of the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap on Kentucky Derby Day, has been doing a lot more training than racing as well this year. The Gold Cup will be just his fifth start of the season. But, as trainer Paolo Lobo points out, all of Molengao's training has taken place on the synthetic surface at Hollywood Park, which could eventually make a huge difference in the entire training vs. racing equation.

In the end, Invasor was a highly entertaining individual who appeared to be running better races every time he took the track. His 2006 Breeders' Cup victory over the younger Bernardini was coldly efficient. His 2007 Donn Handicap triumph, in spite of terrible pilot error, was heroic. His Dubai World Cup, brilliant in the desert night, left fans wanting more.

Invasor was unbeaten in North America, true enough, but he was not truly tested over the old-fashioned long haul. At the end of the day, Invasor did not accomplish that much more than, say, Pleasantly Perfect, winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup and Del Mar's Pacific Classic.

If nothing else, Invasor's loss to the game only increases the appreciation of an animal like Cigar. At this rate, there may never be a back-to-back Horse of the Year like him again.