07/28/2005 12:00AM

Fire Slam has tougher task this time


Coming off a victory in the Grade 2 Riva Ridge Handicap, Fire Slam outclassed the opposition in last year's Don Bernhardt Stakes at Ellis Park and proved a game winner. This year, with Fire Slam returning from more than a seven-month layoff and facing an accomplished group of sprinters, the outcome is more in doubt.

Fire Slam, unraced since finishing sixth in the Distorted Humor Stakes last November at Churchill Downs, faces two other graded winners in Saturday's $75,000 Don Bernhardt at 6 1/2 furlongs. Fire Slam will square off against Private Horde, the 2003 Alfred G. Vanderbilt winner and Level Playingfield, the 2004 Kentucky Cup Sprint champion. Four other talented sprinters are also in the field, led by Coach Jimi Lee, a seven-time stakes winner .

Fire Slam faces a demanding test in what will be his first race since being freshened to allow his feet to heal and grow. "This is a good spot to start off - win, lose, or draw," trainer David Carroll said.

Always prone to quarter cracks, Fire Slam's feet became a major issue in last year's Grade 1 King Bishop Stakes at Saratoga, a race in which he stumbled badly at the start and tore off a shoe. He finished sixth at 2-1 and came out of the race lame.

Fire Slam recovered and returned to the races at Churchill in the fall, but Carroll said foot problems continued to compromise him. Fire Slam ran second as the favorite in the Ack Ack and concluded the year with a sixth in the Distorted Humor Stakes.

He has trained swiftly leading up to the Don Bernhardt. Orlando Mojica rides.

Coach Jimi Lee, winner of the Iowa Sprint Handicap at Prairie Meadows on July 4, has earned triple-digit Beyer Speed figures in his last three starts over fast surfaces. Since April, his only double-digit Beyer came when he ran a 97, finishing second to Level Playingfield in an allowance race in the slop at Churchill Downs on June 3. Craig Perret returns to ride.

Level Playingfield, meanwhile, benefits from a class drop after running fifth of six in the Grade 3 Aristides at Churchill Downs on June 25.

Premier Performer and the Billy Hays-owned entry of Sterling Gold and Korbyn Gold complete the field.

* Ellens Lucky Star, a multiple stakes winner against Indiana-breds, heads the ninth race, a $35,000 overnight handicap at 1 1/16 miles on turf. She has slowly improved with each race this year and may be set to return to her peak form of 2004. Water Gap, Aimer, and Regale are among her principal rivals.