11/19/2004 12:00AM

The best jumper around

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is Colonial Cup time again, with the cream of the steeplechase world convening on Sunday near the South Carolina town of Camden. The Eclipse Award is on the line, along with the bragging rights that go along with winning the most famous jump event on the North American calendar.

The race requires horses to negotiate 2 3/4 miles of verdant Carolina terrain, sprinkled diabolically with 17 bold, cedar-brush-topped fences. Seven of those fences are spread along a daunting leg on the far side of the course, where competitiors are thoroughly tested and the weak have only themselves to blame.

"There are a lot of good horses who don't get it done," said Sanna Hendriks, who has won the Colonial Cup as both a rider and a trainer. "I think that's what makes it that much more special when you do have one who can win it. It's a real, true champions' test. There are no excuses. It's a wide-open, great-galloping kind of course, and ordinarily the best horse wins, which can't be said about that many races."

Hendriks is back at Camden this weekend with defending Colonial Cup champ and reigning Eclipse Award winner McDynamo, who will be making his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase on Oct. 23 at Far Hills, in New Jersey.

This time last year, however, Hendriks was otherwise occupied with the pressing duties of new motherhood and therefore was forced to miss McDynamo's four-length victory over stablemate Lord Zada. Patrick Hendriks - the son of two trainers - was born on Nov. 15, 2003. McDynamo marked the occasion by winning the Colonial Cup the very next day.

The victory confirmed what everyone already had suspected, that McDynamo had become the best of the best in a pitiless game. Horses fall like hailstones in this particular business, tumbling and tangled, causing even hard-boiled fans to avert their eyes. More often than not they get right back up, dusting themselves off with a "so that happened" shrug, ready to leap at the next available wall.

It was just such a fall that provided McDynamo with an epiphany that may have saved his jumping soul. The date was June 6, 2002, at Belmont Park - two days before War Emblem took the field for his Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes - and McDynamo was 3-1 to win the Meadowbrook 'Chase in the fifth jump start of his career. Everything went fine over the first six barriers, then the seventh took him down.

To that point, McDynamo was the most gifted young jumper in the country - "young," as in 5 years old, since he had spent the first two years of his competitive life chasing faster horses around flat courses for his owner and trainer, Michael Moran. Once turned over to Hendriks, McDynamo sprouted wings

"His problem when he was younger was that he was really a bold, agressive jumper," Hendriks said. "He would go at any time. He'd get inside the wings and just stand off, just because he could. But you don't really want them to do that all the time. It can be a little risky.

"That day at Belmont he was a little confused. There was a loose horse, or something weird happened. He got distracted and lost focus on the jump. But ever since then he has paid a lot more attention to the jumping. It's like he realized, 'Wow, I could get hurt doing this.' "

Later on he did, but not badly enough to end the tale. In the wake of last year's Colonial Cup, Hendriks and her vets detected a small fracture in a bone just below McDynamo's right hock. Two screws were inserted, and a lengthy recovery ensued. When he finally was ready to return, Hendriks threw her star right into the fire, taking on a defense of his title in the 2003 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase. McDynamo passed the test by 1 1/2 lengths, running his win streak to six straight.

"It was a difficult injury to detect," the trainer said. "He might have been living with it for awhile. But now, he's moving better than ever - certainly better than he was before the Colonial Cup last year."

The opposition might have had their best shot at McDynamo in the Breeders' Cup. Now sleek and sassy, shed of the weight he added during recovery, he presents a tough package for his Colonial Cup competition on Sunday.

"You never know how they'll come back off an injury and a long layoff like that," Hendriks said. "But I've been very happy with him since the Breeders' Cup."

Still, uncertainty abounds, especially when horses are required to leave the ground. Hendriks recalled her day in the sun back in 1992 when, as Sanna Neilson, she became the first woman to ride the winner of the Colonial Cup, aboard Mistico for owner R.D. Hubbard.

"I knew I was going pretty good when I jumped the third from last," she said. "Then I saw Jeff Teter give Victorian Hills a little squeeze. Since I thought he was the one to beat, I thought we'd be okay, as long as we didn't have a mishap. But you never really know until you land over the last fence and run away from them."