03/04/2004 12:00AM

Burning Roma back to dirt

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - Burning Roma, fresh from a sparkling winning effort on the turf in the Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup, returns to the main track for Saturday's $65,000 Budweiser Challenger Stakes. The race pits two winners of the Tampa Bay Derby - Burning Roma and Region of Merit.

Jesus Castanon will return aboard the millionaire Burning Roma at 122 under the allowance conditions of the 1 1/16-mile race. Trained by Heather Giglio, Burning Roma will be making his third start of the season when he attempts to add to his career earnings of $1,385,037 while shooting for his 13th win from 31 career starts.

In 2001, Burning Roma captured the Tampa Bay Derby and was thought for a time to be a classic contender.

Region of Merit, who has not won a race since taking the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby here last spring, makes his 4-year-old debut for the powerful stable of Christophe Clement and will carry 116 pounds, including leading rider Joe Judice.

Burning Roma disappointed as the 6-5 choice in the seven-furlong Super Stakes in his first start as a 6-year-old, finishing sixth in a race won by Above the Wind. He rebounded with style when moved to the turf for the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup, stalking a hot pace for six furlongs, driving to the front under Castanon in the stretch, then holding off a late challenge from Remind to post a neck win - his second straight in the Tampa Bay BC.

Last season Burning Roma made the most of his limited starts. He finished second, beaten just a head by Tale of the Cat at Gulfstream going seven furlongs on the main track. He came back to set the pace in the Grade 3, $100,000 Oceanport Handicap at Monmouth Park before falling three-quarters of a length short to Tam's Terms in that 1 1/16-mile race.

Region of Merit followed his win in the 2003 Tampa Bay Derby with a fourth-place finish behind Sir Cherokee in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, then was sidelined from April until June. He returned to run fourth in the Hill Prince Stakes, a Grade 3 that was moved from the turf to the main track. He turned in a dull effort in the Grade 2 Jerome and has not raced since September. He has been training in a steady, if not spectacular, manner for his return, and any horse from the Clement stable deserves a long look.

Others in the field worth consideration include the improving Native Hawk, an impressive turf winner two races back, and Above the Wind, winner of the Pelican and Super Stakes on the main track who was caught up in a suicidal speed duel through the opening six furlongs of the Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup.