11/21/2001 1:00AM

'Charlie' is Fisher's last hope


PORTLAND, Ore. - Trainer Steve Fisher began the Portland Meadows meeting with four solid older stakes runners in his barn.

There was eight-time stakes winner Knight Cover, who was retired in a ceremony here last Saturday. There was Playfair stakes winner Wapato Wind, who was retired after cracking a sesamoid bone in a race on Nov. 11. There was local stakes winner Star Expresso, who is now 9 and recovering from a bout with pneumonia.

Fisher's only remaining older stakes horse is Chinquapin Charlie, who will make his meet debut in Friday's $7,500-added Thanksgiving Handicap at a mile.

"He's my stable star now," said Fisher. "It's all up to him."

Chinquapin Charlie, a 4-year-old son of Northern Baby, came through nicely for Fisher and owner Jim Hambleton earlier this year. The stretch-running colt won the one-mile Polynesian Flyer Handicap and the Portland Meadows Mile last spring en route to being named the meet's top handicap horse, then scored in the Longacres Mile Consolation at Emerald Downs in August. Those accomplishments will likely earn him the favorite's role on Friday.

"I freshened him up after the Emerald meet, but I think he'll be ready to run a good race on Friday," Fisher said. "He won't be ready for his very best effort, though. We're really just looking to move him forward. Our main goal is to defend his Portland Meadows Mile title, so I don't want to really bear down on him until the spring.

"He has trained well, and he has developed into a pretty nice horse. A mile is barely far enough for him, but we've learned that he has an exceptionally long move."

Chinquapin Charlie is expected to get stiff competition in the Thanksgiving from one of two horses trainer Pat Sonnen is considering for the race: Tomtom Tommalice, who defeated Star Expresso in the Inaugural Handicap here on Oct. 27, or Speed Trial, who romped over open claimers in his first start for Sonnen on Nov. 12.

"I don't want to run both of them in there because there isn't really enough money in the pot to justify that," Sonnen said. "I'd like to run [Tomtom Tommalice] because he is eligible for the Oregon-bred bonuses and also because he has earned the right to be there. He had a little cough, though, and even though he is over it now I don't think he is quite as sharp as he was a couple of weeks ago. We'll just have to see how he is on race day.

"Right now I think Speed Trial might outrun him. I claimed him for $3,200, but he won easy that day and he won even easier when I ran him back at a mile for $6,250. That was the fastest mile at the meeting, so I think he'll have a chance if he goes."

Success from the one-hole

Conventional wisdom has it that the rail post is death for Quarter Horses at Portland Meadows, so when trainer Chuck Lindsey drew the rail with both Thirdrocktothesun in Saturday's $11,000 Fall Derby and Tiny Rocket Dash in Sunday's $18,622 Oregon-bred Juvenile Championship, he felt like staying in bed.

After Thirdrocktothesun ran second to the heavily favored CPR First Class in the Fall Derby and Tiny Rocket Dash prevailed over the heavily favored Micro Meter in the Juvenile, Lindsey changed his tune.

"I think I'll ask for the 1-hole every time from now on," he said, joking. "Either it's not as bad as I thought it was, or my horses are better."

Tiny Rocket Dash, who stretched his winning streak to seven on Sunday, may be better than anyone thought he was. Though he scored by only a head under regular rider David Brown, he gave the impression he was never going to yield.

"David told me we still haven't gotten to the bottom of him," Lindsey said. "He likes to hook up and just keep a head in front. It's a lot of fun to have a horse like him, and you'd never know it to look at him. He's just a plain old horse who never gets excited about anything, but he can sure run."