04/12/2002 12:00AM

Five champions back for Spring Challenge


The Maryland-bred champions of 2001 will be honored on Wednesday evening at the Maryland Horse Breeders Association's annual awards dinner at the Improv in Baltimore. Three days later, many of last year's stars will be in action at Pimlico for the ninth annual Maryland Spring Challenge Day, a celebration of the state's breeding industry.

Four stakes, worth a combined $335,000 and restricted to horses foaled in Maryland, are offered in addition to the $100,000 Federico Tesio Stakes, Maryland's prep for the Triple Crown, which includes a bonus of $25,000 for Maryland-bred runners.

All five champions currently in training who competed on the main track last season are nominated to stakes on Spring Challenge Day.

Set to make his first start of the year in the Jennings Handicap is Maryland-bred Horse of the Year Include. The Jennings was one of five stakes victories last year for Include, who used it as a prep for his victory in the Grade 1 Pimlico Special.

With no Special on this year's schedule, trainer Bud Delp says this year's Jennings could be a springboard for either the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup in May or the Grade 2 Massachusetts Handicap, which Include won last year, in June.

"He's training very well, and we hope to move forward off of this race," said Delp.

Facing Include is last year's champion 3-year-old male, Saratoga Games. A consistent colt, he finished first or second in nine of his 10 starts last year but has had an uncharacteristic start this year.

Given a breather after his eight-length victory in last November's Northern Dancer Stakes, Saratoga Games weakened in his 2002 debut, finishing fourth in the John B. Campbell Handicap in February. After Saratoga Games finished fifth in his next start, the Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap, trainer Tony Dutrow discovered the colt had a lung infection, but reported that Saratoga Games, as well as last year's champion 2-year-old filly, Touch Love, are currently doing great.

Touch Love is one of 16 nominated to the Caesar's Wish Stakes at a 1 1/16 miles. The filly was perfect at 2, winning all three of her races, topped by the Grade 2 Schuylerville at Saratoga.

Touch Love has had nothing but tough luck at 3. Odds-on favorite in her first start of the year, the Jameela Stakes in February, she unseated Ramon Dominguez at the break. In her second start, Touch Love took on the boys in the Deputed Testamony Stakes, at the same distance as the Caesar's Wish, and was again the overwhelming favorite. She battled for the lead the entire trip before grudgingly giving way in deep stretch, finishing fifth in the field of five to Magic Weisner.

Champion older mare Shine Again will be seeking to defend her title in the Geisha Handicap. Last year's Geisha was Shine Again's first stakes attempt, and after her front-running score she faced graded company in all five of her remaining starts and was never off the board, her 4-year-old season highlighted by a victory in the Grade 1 Ballerina Handicap.

In her first outing this year after a five-month layoff, Shine Again didn't show her normal spark and trailed the field in the Hurricane Bertie Handicap at Gulfstream Park in March.

"She bled a little in that race and will run on Lasix next out," said her trainer, Allen Jerkens.

In the Federico Tesio Stakes, Magic Weisner will be out to extend his stakes-winning streak to five and solidify his chances for a berth in the Preakness Stakes.

Last year's champion 2-year-old male, Magic Weisner produced his most impressive score last out when he drew off by 4 1/2 lengths in Laurel Park's Private Terms Stakes, at the same 1 1/8-mile distance as the Tesio. Trained by Nancy Alberts, the gelding has experience over the Pimlico oval - he won his maiden race at Pimlico last fall by 8 1/2 lengths going 1 1/16 miles.

The only stakes on the card that does not showcase one of last year's champions is the six-furlong Star de Naskra Stakes for 3-year-olds.