11/14/2003 12:00AM

This McCarron prefers to jump

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - On Sunday, the best race in North America will not be in New York or Los Angeles. Nor will it be in south Florida, Louisville, Ky., or any other place where Thoroughbreds are asked to perform the simple task of running on flat ground and turning left.

Sunday's best race, full-blooded and meaningful, takes place in the little South Carolina town of Camden, on a spiraling course of 2 3/4 miles, over 17 tall, brush-topped fences that require both horse and rider to exhibit a bravery normally associated with pitched battle.

Welcome to the $100,000 Colonial Cup.

The race is America's most famous steeplechase event. It takes place at Springdale Race Course, a 600-acre patch of horse heaven that was presented to the state of South Carolina by Marion duPont Scott, thereby assuring its perpetuity. As a gesture of eternal gratitude, the Colonial Cup bears her name.

Sunday's field is led by McDynamo, winner of the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase in his last start. He is the lead story, but there are secondary dramas as well.

Lord Zada, winner of the Cup in 2001, is back to try again. Al Skywalker, the pride of California, has won twice over the course in the Carolina Cup. And Sanna Hendriks, who won the Cup as a jockey in 1992 and trains McDynamo, will miss the race on doctors orders. As of Friday, she was a week past due expecting her first child.

Then there is the matter of the National Steeplechase Association riding title. The Colonial Cup program marks the end of the steeplechase season, and two men are tied at the top of the standings with 16 winners each. One of them is David Bentley, the Englishman who edged Gus Brown for the 2002 championship. The other is a fellow named McCarron. Matt McCarron, that is.

McCarron is the son of jockey-turned-trainer Gregg McCarron and the nephew of Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, retired now and working as general manager of Santa Anita Park. At the age of 33, Matt McCarron has been competing in steeplechase racing for 11 years, but never before has the title been within his grasp.

"As long as I've been doing it, to actually be in the hunt for it, it makes it that much more special," McCarron said Friday morning. "It would be a dream come true. And even if it doesn't happen, just getting this close makes a lot of hard work worthwhile."

McCarron was on his way home from his regular day job, exercising horses for trainer Mary Eppler at Pimlico, before getting on the road Saturday to drive the 400 miles south to Camden. This is the life most steeplechase riders lead. Limited racing opportunities require them to hold down employment beyond their glorious few rides on the circuit. Second-tier flat jockeys at B-level tracks make a better living.

Flat jocks also think jump jocks are crazy. Just ask them.

"I did everything in my power to dissuade him from becoming a jumping jockey," said Gregg McCarron, who ended his career with 2,403 winners. "I explained to him how much more dangerous it was.

"He tried to tell me that when they fall, they're going a lot slower than flat jockeys, and that flat jockeys always get trampled," Gregg McCarron went on. "Fine, I said, but let's say they ride six races on one of these cards at a sanctioned steeplechase meet. There's a good chance two of them are going to fall! A flat jockey can go month after month and maybe not fall."

Nothing changed the father's mind after watching Matt compete over jumps for the first time.

"He was going head-and-head for the lead as they were going over the last jump," Gregg McCarron recalled. "But his horse trashed it and went head over heels. I was standing right at the jump. When he hit the ground I ducked under the fence to see how he was. Except there were still three horses left on the course, getting ready to jump. They ruled me off, but not Matt."

Matt McCarron entertained notions of following in the footsteps of his father and his famous uncle, but he physically outgrew those dreams.

"It was bittersweet," Gregg McCarron said. "But at least he never has to hear that he'll never be as good as his uncle. That would have been difficult. He went off on his own and learned how to become a jumping jockey. He doesn't have to give credit to Dad, or Uncle Chris, or anything like that."

The younger McCarron has benefited this fall from the untimely injury to perennial top jump rider Gus Brown. A number of Brown's live mounts went to McCarron, and over the past month, competing weekends only, he won 10 races to catch Bentley at the top of the charts.

McCarron has three rides scheduled on the Colonial Cup program, while Bentley rides six. In the Cup itself, McCarron rides Pelagos, while Bentley is aboard Mulahen.

"It's a demanding race," said McCarron, who finished fifth on Turkish Corner last year. "The fences are unique - big, tall and imposing - and you don't really jump over them. You jump through them. A lot of times that can intimidate a horse and affect their jumping. It takes a gritty animal to do it."

And the same amount of grit in the saddle.