04/19/2005 11:00PM

Champions top Royal Chase

Far Hills Race Course
McDynamo, shown winning the 2004 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, makes his seasonal debut in Friday's Royal Chase at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Much has been made of how the very best of the Thoroughbred world has descended on Keeneland this spring. That theme will hold true when the steeplechase set makes its annual visit here Friday for the eighth running of the Grade 1 Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings.

The last two Eclipse Award winners in the steeplechase category, McDynamo (2003) and Hirapour (2004), are part of an outstanding eight-horse field that will soar over jumps while traveling about 2 1/2 miles in the $150,000 Royal Chase.

"You can't get much better than two Eclipse winners," said Bill Gallo, longtime director of racing for the National Steeplechase Association. "We're excited about the prospects, and, as always, we are thrilled to be going back to Keeneland."

, an 8-year-old by Dynaformer, won all three of his starts in 2003, including a runaway victory in the Royal Chase at 9-2 odds. After the season, he was sidelined for 11 months with a hock injury, but was still good enough to win the 2004 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase last October. McDynamo missed winning a second straight Eclipse, though, when Hirapour, the 2004 Royal Chase winner, defeated him in the NSA season finale, the Colonial Cup in November.

Conventional handicapping suggests has a slight advantage over McDynamo, because Hirapour already has a race this year, a second in the Carolina Cup on April 2, whereas McDynamo will be making his seasonal debut. But steeplechasing is slightly different from racing on the flat, and horses frequently win off lengthy layoffs.

Trainer Sanna Hendriks said McDynamo "is doing better than he was at any point last fall. He's fitter, sharper, and I don't feel like I'm pushing him."

Hirapour, a 9-year-old gelding trained by Doug Fout, will be ridden by Matt McCarron, the son of former jockey Gregg McCarron and nephew of Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron. Fout said Hirapour "came out of his last race better than he did the last two, which is a great sign."

Other viable contenders in the Royal Chase include Sur La Tete, who won the Carolina Cup over Hirapour, and Tres Touche and Cherokeeinthe-hills, the one-two finishers in the New York Turf Writers last summer at Saratoga.

Mulahen, Il Capitano, and Airolo complete the field.