04/14/2008 11:00PM

Preemptive Strike stands out in absence of stars

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – McDynamo is retired, and Good Night Shirt and Mixed Up raced last weekend in Atlanta. What has been a major highlight for the last decade in the early-season steeplechasing schedule – the Grade 1 Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings, to be renewed Thursday at Keeneland – is not nearly as deep this year, owing to a set of circumstances that kept the brightest stars in the division from being here.

Nonetheless, trainer Sanna Hendriks is glad to be coming with Preemptive Strike, a 10-year-old gelding likely to be favored in the 2 1/2-mile jumping race.

“It is a little disappointing the race didn’t come up better, because Keeneland is a tremendous racecourse and we all are happy to come there,” said Hendriks.

Preemptive Strike, with Jody Petty to ride, will carry high weight of 152 pounds in the $150,000 Royal Chase, the eighth of nine races. Last year, Preemptive Strike was making his first start in more than 18 months when he fell early in the Royal Chase, but Hendriks is confident the front-running gelding is far better prepared this time.

Hendriks, who already has won two of the 10 runnings of the Royal Chase with Pompeyo (2001) and her three-time Eclipse Award-winning steeplechaser McDynamo (2003), said the handicap conditions of the race, as set forth by the National Steeplechase Association, “maybe should be revisited.”

“If it was set up as a money-won allowance, everyone would know what they’re in for,” she said.

Good Night Shirt, the reigning Eclipse champion, was assigned 162 pounds for the Royal Chase, which led trainer Jack Fisher to run him instead in the Georgia Cup last Saturday. Good Night Shirt won easily, while Mixed Up, the 2007 Royal Chase winner, finished third for trainer Jonathan Sheppard, who already had two viable prospects for the Royal Chase in Sovereign Duty and Sweet Shani. Of those, maybe Sovereign Duty, coming off a March?29 allowance victory in South Carolina, rates the best chance at a mild upset Thursday.

The rest of the Royal Chase field is Swimming River, Best Attack, Feeling So Pretty, and Orison.

The Royal Chase is part of the pick six – and if bettors failed to take down the Wednesday pick six, they will be required to include the steeplechase in their chase for a huge jackpot Thursday. The carryover into the Wednesday card was a Keeneland record $307,050.