11/17/2006 1:00AM

Latest chapter in jump racing rivalry

Bill Roberts/Horsephotos
Ridden by Jody Petty, McDynamo wins the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase at Far Hills on Oct. 28. His rival, Hirapour, has not raced since August.

McDynamo won the Colonial Cup in 2003, but he failed to defend his title in 2004 when he could not deal with Hirapour. Then last year, with the Eclipse Award squarely on the line, McDynamo went to the lead from the start and held Hirapour safe at the end to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

In truth, the McDynamo-Hirapour rivalry has been more like Affirmed and Alydar, with one holding a decided edge but the other always a presence, forcing both runners to produce their best.

They first met in October of 2004 in the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase at Far Hills, New Jersey, when both were coming off long layoffs. McDynamo proved best by 1 1/2 lengths. One month later, in the '04 Colonial Cup, Hirapour evened the score, coming to the end of the ordeal clear by nearly three.

In their only two meetings since, McDynamo romped in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, with Hirapour a distant third, and followed that with his victory over Hirapour in the '05 Colonial Cup. In terms of current form, McDynamo has the edge, fresh from his fourth straight score in the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, while Hirapour has not raced since the end of August.

Jonathan Sheppard, a not-so-neutral observor, thinks this year's Colonial Cup is McDynamo's to lose.

"It looks as if the only way he can get beat is if he beats himself," Sheppard said on Friday from Camden. "It's hard to imagine Hirapour being at his best, having not run in a jumping race for three months. And McDynamo seems to be as good as he's ever been."

Sheppard will try to upset the marquee names with Mixed Up, a 7-year-old son of Carnivalay who will be getting a taste of the testing Colonial Cup course for the first time. The Sheppard runner was a distant third to McDynamo on deep turf in the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, but during the summer he did win the New York Turf Writers Steeplechase at Saratoga.

"This is a very fair test of who's the best horse," Sheppard said of the Cup course. "It's a wide-open, galloping track. You usually don't get too many hard-luck stories. And it's the only major race we have that isn't run over the national fence, which is what we call the artificial fences.

"These are natural brush fences - slightly bigger, taller, and thicker," Sheppard went on. "Horses can still brush through it, and the bold horses will brush through it. But our horse tends to be a little bit careful sometimes. He might jump just a little bit bigger than necessary, and lose a little bit of time that way. But if he can get covered up in a pack, and not see the fence until they're not too far out, the rest of the pack could carry him along. We'll see."

Beyond the McDynamo-Hirapour plot, along with the challenges face by a Colonial Cup newcomer like Mixed Up, there are peripheral dramas playing out on Sunday as the National Steeplechase Association ends its 2006 season.

The NSA riding title will be decided between newcomer Danielle Hodsdon, who rides Mixed Up for Sheppard, and two-time NSA champ Matt McCarron, who will be found in his usual place aboard Hirapour.

No matter who wins - Hodsdon currently leads by three - the trophy will go to the same address, since McCarron and Hodsdon are a romantic item offstage.

"I think they've helped each other," said Sheppard, who employs Hodsdon as his stable rider. "She's always been a beautiful rider, but lacked a little bit of race-riding savvy, and needed to be a little more aggressive, which is certainly Matt's strength. At the same time, she's set an example as extremely dedicated, focused, and a very hard worker."

Sheppard, the sport's all-time leading trainer and a member of the racing Hall of Fame, will enter Sunday's competition with a chance to win the NSA title for the first time since 1999. Sanna Hendriks, his former assistant and the trainer of McDynamo, is three wins back.

"Sanna has four horses in on Sunday, and three of them will be even-money, so I'm not celebrating yet," Sheppard said.

Any celebrating at all, whether a title or an upset in the Cup, will be muted on Sheppard's part. On Wednesday, his 24-year-old son, Jonathan Parker Sheppard, died of head injuries suffered in an assault last month in Durango, Colo., where he was attending college. He had been on life support and never emerged from a coma.

"He certainly had a very good mind," Sheppard said. "Who knows what he might have done? But I think he would have achieved something in life. In fact, I'm sure he would have."

The hardest call Sheppard had to make was to inform his mother in England of her grandson's death.

"She's tough," Sheppard said. "Right away she thinks of me. 'You've got things to do - you've got all these horses running,' she said. 'The Colonial Cup is on Sunday, isn't it? You'd better concentrate on that.' "