10/20/2004 11:00PM

McDynamo vulnerable off layoff


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - McDynamo left an indelible image of power and grace with his 15 1/4-length romp in last year's Breeders' Cup Steeplechase.

The performance wowed the estimated crowd of 40,000 at the Far Hills Races and convinced the Eclipse Award voters to crown him champion jumper.

McDynamo, 7, returns to Far Hills to defend his title Saturday afternoon under very different circumstances.

The air of invincibility that blanketed the gelding last season has changed on two fronts. This will be his first start in almost 11 months, and the competition is much stronger in this 13th edition of steeplechasing's richest event.

The Grade 1, $175,000 Breeders' Cup, run at 2 5/8 miles over 14 national fences, tops a seven-race card at the annual one-day race meet. First post is 1 p.m.

McDynamo, with regular rider Craig Thornton flying in from New Zealand, will be favored to repeat in a strictly figurative sense. There is no parimutuel wagering at Far Hills, a natural amphitheater, which will be dotted with tailgaters partaking in an afternoon of racing and social mingling.

On paper, McDynamo remains formidable with five straight stakes wins, the last four in Grade 1 races. He is also a horse for the Far Hills course, having won here in each of the last three years.

The question of fitness remains following surgery at the end of last season to repair a fracture below the right hock joint. This will be his first race since closing out an unbeaten three-race season last year in the Colonial Cup.

"He was a little funny behind all last fall," said trainer Sanna Hendriks. "We weren't really sure why."

A series of tests revealed the hock joint problem.

"We did some surgery and we put two screws in there to stabilize it," said Hendriks.

The rehabilitation required two months of stall rest which, Hendriks said, "he handled very well because he doesn't actually like to be locked in a stall."

The recovery has gone smoothly.

"We haven't, knock on wood, had too many complications," said Hendriks.

The most severe complication Saturday might be the high level of ability among his eight rivals in this Breeders' Cup.

"It's extremely contentious," said Bill Gallo, the director of racing for the National Steeplechase Association. "It's extremely deep. You could literally make a case for just about every horse in the race."

In addition to McDynamo, strong arguments can be advanced for Sur La Tete, Hirapour, Flat Top, Preemptive Strike, and Tres Touche.

Sur La Tete could be the next major jumping star. A recent graduate from the novice ranks, Sur La Tete crushed experienced rivals in the Grade 2 Metcalfe Memorial in late September at Monmouth Park. He won a stakes at Far Hills last year. He will be ridden by Chris Read.

The Irish-bred Hirapour established his credentials with a win in the Grade 1 Royal Chase at Keeneland in the spring. Matt McCarron, the nephew of Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, has the mount.

Flat Top, like McDynamo, is on the comeback trail. This will be the first start in two seasons for the 11-year-old who, like McDynamo, has a shot at joining Morley Street (1990 and 1991) and Highland Bud (1989 and 1992) as the only two-time Breeders' Cup Chase winners.

The front-running Flat Top took the 2002 edition. He will have Rob Massey aboard.

Preemptive Strike defeated Hirapour at Camden and finished second to him at Keeneland. Robbie Walsh will ride.

Tres Touche has the most impressive resume this year with two Grade 1 wins. David Bentley has the mount.

Trainer Bruce Miller entered a pair, Pelagos and Popular Gigalo, and named his son Chip to ride both.

Pelagos was a distant second behind McDynamo in last year's Breeders' Cup, while Popular Gigalo was second in this race in 2000.

Ansar is the unknown factor, from the barn of Irish trainer Dermot Weld. Weld is best known in the U.S. for victories on the flat with Go and Go in the 1990 Belmont Stakes and more recently with Simple Exchange in the Arlington Classic. David Casey, who was aboard Ansar for a win in this year's Galway Plate, has the return assignment.

The field

Breeders' Cup Steeplechase
Purse: $175,000; 2 5/8 Miles, Turf; Grade 1

1Flat TopR. Massey4-1
2HirapourM. McCarron8-1
3AnsarD. Casey10-1
4McDynamoC. Thornton8-5
5Tres ToucheD. Bentley10-1
6Sur La TeteC. Read6-1
7PelagosC. Miller15-1
8Preemptive Strike R. Walsh15-1
9Popular GigaloC. Miller20-1

* All starters carry 156 pounds
* Odds by Bill Gallo, director of racing for the National Steeplechase Association