11/08/2006 12:00AM

We'll see if this one sticks


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There was a point in time and space, last Saturday at Churchill Downs, when everything anyone needed to know about winning and losing on Breeders' Cup Day was condensed into a single encounter.

It happened as twilight fell on the clubhouse turn, when Breeders' Cup Classic champion Invasor, draped in a celebratory blanket, brushed past Todd Pletcher and Angel Cordero on his way to the backstretch test barn. Invasor was in a hurry, practically dragging his people along, and the same could be said for Pletcher and Cordero, who were anxious to put the day behind them after losing with all 17 of the stable's starters.

Even so, Pletcher managed to call out a sincere "congratulations" to Invasor's assistant trainer, Neal McLaughlin, and exercise rider Barry Downs. Downs was the one happily burdened with the purple and yellow Breeders' Cup Classic garland, draped over his shoulders and nearly reaching the ground. And it was Downs who fell in alongside Cordero, offering his sympathies on the frustrating day.

"What other game does this to you?" Cordero wondered aloud, as Downs and the flowers peeled off toward the Kiaran McLaughlin shedrow. "Something that can take you so high one minute and rip your guts out the next. What kind of game is that? I'll tell you what kind - it's a beautiful game."

No question about it, especially as practiced by a horse like Invasor, who defied the callow observations that a Thoroughbred cannot be made ready for a major competitive challenge without a race in the previous 90 days.

"Never a worry," said Downs. "And we said so. This horse is so competitive, he goes looking for horses to beat, morning or afternoon. You get yourself plenty fit doing that."

Still, it will go down as a fine piece of training by Kiaran McLaughlin, destined to rank alongside the best of racing's long-range projects. They include Ron McAnally's victory in the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap with John Henry (on the DQ of nose winner Perrault) after a three-month layoff, Charlie Whittingham's triumph with Cougar in the 1973 Santa Anita Cap following 129 days on the sidelines, and the work of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons to bring back Nashua from a 126-day break to win the 1956 Widener.

Before last Saturday, the only South Americans to win Breeders' Cup races were the Argentinean mares Bayakoa and Paseana, both trained by McAnally. Bayakoa won the 1989 and 1990 runnings of the Distaff, and Paseana was best in 1992, and now both of them are in the American racing Hall of Fame.

If Invasor can expand in 2007 upon his four perfect North American races in 2006, the same destination could await. In the meantime, he is a bona fide hero in his own land.

In Uruguay, where Invasor was raised and raced, the national newspaper El Observador ran the headline: "Invasor is the World's Greatest Racehorse."

Hilda San Martin, who raised Invasor with her husband, Anibal, told Associated Press reporter Alfonso Castiglia that Invasor "is just divine," and that she would always tell him, "You are my prince." And across the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where Invasor was bred, sports columnist Julo Guimaraes declared, "Years will pass and then someone will list the great champions of today and yesteryear, and they will speak of Invasor as the Maradona of the horse racing world."

Comparing a horse with an international soccer legend puts Invasor in tall cotton. It is also a sure thing that the horse will turn out a lot better than Diego Maradona, who has all but squandered his remarkable football memories with a life of substance abuse. He was even banned from a World Cup tournament after failing a drug test.

More significantly, at least for consumption by modern American audiences, Invasor has been blessed with his own catchphrase. Such an honor is bestowed only upon the most worthy public figures, and in the case of Invasor, the slogan was created last spring by TV host Kenny Mayne during an ESPN racing broadcast.

Choosing an accent that summoned memories of the politically incorrect 1960's variety show icon Jose Jimenez (really the gringo comic Bill Dana), and then seasoned with just enough of the Taco Bell chihuahua, Mayne boiled down any analysis of Invasor with the simple flourish:

"Invasor. . . he's the best."

The ultimate success of a catchphrase hangs upon its acceptance by the subject. In this case, the horse had no particular opinion. As long as you bring Invasor his tub at feeding time, he'll answer to just about anything.

Most catchphrases die a quiet death, too cute for their own good. But let the record show, that long after sundown last Saturday, as the McLaughlin grooms, riders, and hotwalkers gathered beneath their Churchill Downs shedrow, plucking at the flowers of the Classic garland and popping brews, a shout could be heard, imbued with purebred Hispanic flair, and loud enough to be heard many barns away:

"Invasor. . . he's the best!"