Missing gold cup ‘blessing
in disguise’ for Invasor

Nov 21, 2006 4:21 AM

If Todd Pletcher doesn’t win an Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer for winning nearly $27 million in purses in 2006, Kiaran McLaughlin will, as sure as Bobby Knight is a candidate for anger management classes.

McLaughlin would deserve honors for one of the greatest training achievements in recent memory. The 46-year-old Kentucky native resurrected memories of legends from yesteryear like Seabiscuit’s Tom Smith, Wheatley Stable’s Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Calumet’s iconic father and son tandem of Ben and Jimmy Jones, when he brought Invasor up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic on works alone and won despite a three-month layoff, whipping the mighty Bernardini to become the favorite to win Horse of the Year honors.

The winner will be announced at the Eclipse Awards dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills on Monday, Jan. 22, 2007.

"It’s just fabulous that Invasor would be Horse of the Year," McLaughlin said. "When the Uruguayans sent me the horse, I stayed in touch with them through e-mail and after he won the Pimlico Special, I e-mailed them, half-joking, and wrote, "from Uruguay’s Horse of the Year to America’s Horse of the Year,’ but I was kind of kidding them. Now you look back to May or June and I was right on, even though it’s hard to believe. But he is a star and it’s fun to have a horse like that in your barn, that’s for sure."

McLaughlin never wavered in his training of the 4-year-old Argentine-bred son of Candy Stripes, even though the bay colt missed the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 7 due to a fever. The race, won handily by Bernardini over three rivals, was intended to be Invasor’s final major prep for the Classic. In retrospect, McLaughlin had no regrets.

"I felt like Invasor had never been better (going into the Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4)," McLaughlin said. "I knew he had never been more sound, never been better physically and in his appearance, and in how he was training. But, I also knew he had never faced a horse such as Bernardini. I had a lot of respect for him, but our horse had never been better and I think it was a blessing in disguise that we missed the Gold Cup."

Presently, Invasor (pronounced In-VAH-sor; it means invader in Spanish) is at Palm Meadows in Florida awaiting the $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 3. After that, it’s the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 31 and a possible rematch with the heralded Discreet Cat, the only horse to defeat Invasor. On March 25, Discreet Cat won the UAE Derby, with Invasor fourth, beaten seven lengths. Invasor is unbeaten in the United States, winning four Grade I stakes: the Pimlico Special, the Suburban Handicap, the Whitney Handicap and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He has won nine of 10 career starts and earned $3,904,070, winning his first five starts in Uruguay by a combined 25 lengths.

While Invasor’s path to Horse of the Year appears unfettered, the road to the 3-year-old championship could be thorny. It will come down to Barbaro, the courageous Kentucky Derby winner who has defied all odds and presently is flourishing after a suffering a devastating fracture to his right hind leg in the Preakness, and the breathtaking Bernardini. After finishing fourth in his maiden race, Bernardini never lost in six starts until vanquished by Invasor. Bernardini’s triumphs include the Preakness, the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Grade I races all.

"That’s a very good question," McLaughlin said when asked to name the best 3-year-old. "I have a lot of respect for both horses, and I would say a vote for either would be correct. There’s no wrong choice. But Bernardini has raced all year, and that’s somewhat important to me as far as winning the Eclipse. You want a horse that’s been going from January to December, and not stopping in May, which, unfortunately, Barbaro had to do. But I have a lot of respect for Barbaro and all his connections. Hopefully, they’ll get a special Eclipse Award on the night, so I’ll give my vote to Bernardini."

The homestretch

McLaughlin, an avowed poker fanatic, found a sliver of an opening that allowed him to participate in a tournament after the time-consuming crush of the Breeders’ Cup.

"I turned down trips and business deals aboard private jets, because I couldn’t leave Invasor and Henny Hughes (the favorite in the Sprint) at all," McLaughlin said. "But I saw where Foxwoods had a tournament the Monday after the Breeders’ Cup and I didn’t have any horses running that day (Nov. 6) so I signed up to play at 10 in the morning. I played brilliant poker, but at 11:30 that night I got knocked out on something stupid. I finished 23rd out of 328 players and won $3,851 on a $2,000 buy-in, so now that I actually got paid, you’d have to say I’m a professional." Move over, Texas Dolly.

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