04/23/2003 12:00AM

Praise the Prince back for more


An Eclipse Award finalist two years ago, Praise the Prince is ready to begin his assault on this year's Eclipse as the nation's outstanding steeplechaser.

In Friday's $150,000 Royal Chase at Keeneland, Praise the Prince will be making his first start in nearly a year. Praise the Prince, who led the nation's jumpers in earnings in 2001 while a novice, started only twice last year in a campaign cut short by injury.

Despite his lengthy layoff, Praise the Prince is the 9-5 morning-line favorite in a strong field in the Grade 1 Royal Chase. The race is run over about 2 1/2 miles and over 12 fences, and the field is made up of Al Skywalker, All Gong, Anofferucantrefuse, Mcdynamo, Praise the Prince, Quel Senor, Shamrock Isle, and Turkish Corner.

All Gong won the steeplechase Eclipse Award in 2000, Quel Senor won the 2001 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, Mcdynamo was the top novice of 2002, and Al Skywalker is unbeaten in two starts this year.

Praise the Prince has not started since finishing second to All Gong in the Iroquois Stakes in Nashville last May. Trainer Sanna Hendriks considered bringing the 8-year-old back in the fall last year, but opted to wait until the season resumed this spring.

This year, Praise the Prince has had only a training race on the flat over 1 1/4 miles on turf. "It is a tough place to bring him back," Hendriks said. "I think he'll be better with a run."

Hendriks also trains Mcdynamo, who won the Hard Scuffle Steeplechase for novices at Churchill Downs last year during Kentucky Derby week. He later fell in the Meadowbrook Hurdle at Belmont Park, but rebounded to win two stakes in the fall. The Royal Chase is his first start against open company.

"If Mcdynamo runs his race and relaxes early, I think he'll be tough to beat," Hendriks said.

There will be support for 10-year-old Al Skywalker, who won the Carolina Cup last month by 6 3/4 lengths. The performance impressed trainer Jennifer Majette.

"The thing that pleased me was he had plenty of gas in the tank when he pulled up," she said.

Al Skywalker is a front-runner who could be challenged by Anofferucantrefuse, the winner of the Aitcheson Stakes at Pimlico last May. A duel could hurt both and help the closers.

Majette declined to say whether she would instruct jockey Tom Foley to send Al Skywalker to the lead at all costs. "That conversation will be between me and Tom Foley," she said. "We've got a plan A and a plan B."