04/13/2004 11:00PM

At 11, Lord Zada still has it


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Once a year, a unique kind of ooh-and-aah emanates from the Keeneland grandstand. That's when steeplechasers take to the turf course to compete in the Grade 1 Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings, and that's when racing fans unaccustomed to flying Thoroughbreds can't resist expressing their delight at the novelty.

Although it clearly is a different brand of racing, the $150,000 Royal Chase is, nonetheless, still subject to parimutuel wagering, which surely sharpens the interest of more than a few Keeneland regulars. As usual, handicapping the Royal Chase will be difficult even for seasoned players, although Joe Clancy Jr., director of communications for the Maryland-based National Steeplechase Association, normally is able to steer the unknowing masses into a proper direction.

Lord Zada, an 11-year-old who has earned nearly $500,000, will be a very deserving favorite among eight older geldings entered in the 2 1/2-mile race, said Clancy.

"He's the class of the field," said Clancy. "He's got tons of ability on the flat, but he's also adapted very well to jumping. He once ran a 99 Beyer on the flat, which will jump out at anyone. The obvious question is his age, and he did run poorly in his only start at Keeneland, but he showed last fall that he still has what it takes, and he's already had two training races this year."

Lord Zada, by Lord Avie, is trained by Sanna Hendriks and owned by the Augustin Stable of George Strawbridge, a legend among the jumping set.

Clancy added that a few challengers "might be as good as Lord Zada, but they still have to prove it."

Preemptive Strike, Clancy said, "has been able to win some nice races on the lead and sitting close."

Clancy said that the Irish-bred Hirapour "is a horse that his trainer, Doug Fout, keeps saying some really nice things about. The horse did really well overseas and is still trying to reach that form here."

The other starters in the Royal Chase are Miles Ahead, Dancewel, Man From Artemus, Indispensable, and Mulahen.

Since its inception in 1998, the Royal Chase has been a stop for several champions and has been won by eventual Eclipse winners Lonesome Glory, Flat Top, Pompeyo, and McDynamo.

The Royal Chase, the second-richest event on the annual National Steeplechase Association schedule (behind the $175,000 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase in October), is carded as the eighth of 10 Friday races.