08/19/2009 11:00PM

Fighter on Fire the big horse this time

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In the last year, Fighter on Fire has qualified for four major stakes at Los Alamitos, and failed to win any. A closer glance at his rivals allows a bit of forgiveness. Fighter on Fire has challenged many of the circuit's top Quarter Horses, with his best results being third-place finishes in the Southern California Derby last fall and Vessels Maturity in June.

Saturday's $91,000 Bank of America California Regional Challenge Championship will be an easier race for Fighter on Fire. The field of 10 does not include any 2009 stakes winners.

"Hopefully, the competition is not as deep as before," trainer Adan Farias said.

The stakes, though, are quite high. The winner of the 440-yard race receives an automatic berth to the $350,000 Challenge Championship final at Los Alamitos on Oct. 31, a race that will bring together qualifiers from 10 regions throughout North America.

Owned by Rancho El Alacran, Fighter on Fire won the El Primero Del Ano Derby at Los Alamitos in April 2008 but was later disqualified from the purse money for a medication violation, an excessive amount of the bronchial dilator clenbuterol. For the infraction, Farias served a suspension, during which a large portion of his 120-horse stable went to other barns.

This year, Farias, 29, has been rebuilding. The star of the stable has been Freaky, who beat Fighter on Fire in the Vessels Maturity and is considered the leading contender for the $750,000 Champion of Champions in December. Freaky will not start again until the Los Alamitos Championship on Oct. 10.

Fighter on Fire was beaten two lengths in the 400-yard Vessels Maturity, but rebounded to win one of two divisions for the California Challenge Championship on Aug. 7. Fighter on Fire was timed in 21.45 seconds, the second-fastest qualifying time. Stoli Powered set the fastest time of 21.36 seconds by winning the other division in a 15-1 upset.

The slower qualifying time does not bother Farias.

"We never pushed him in the trials," he said. "He came back perfectly after that race. In the other trial, the horses were pushed pretty hard. I think he'll come through."

Aside from Stoli Powered, Fighter on Fire must contend with Bannow Bay, who was second in the Oklahoma Challenge Championship in May and was a troubled fourth behind Fighter on Fire in the trials after a poor start, and Trisk, who was second to Stoli Powered in the trials and third in the Oklahoma Challenge Championship.

Farias also starts Premier Venu, a 9-year-old gelding who was third behind Stoli Powered in the trials. Premier Venu is prone to poor starts.

"He's kind of slow out of the gate," Farias said. "He's a fast closer at the end."