10/17/2001 11:00PM

At last, the Championships

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It's been a yearlong saga with 56 regional races at 21 tracks, and it concludes on Saturday night with the MBNA America Challenge Championships at Los Alamitos.

Five Grade 1 stakes with total purses of $775,000 headline the annual series, which is managed by the American Quarter Horse Association.

Horses qualified for the Saturday night stakes by winning or placing in their respective regional races.

Here's a rundown on the five Grade 1 races:

$300,000 MBNA America Challenge

Tailor Fit, the 1999 world champion, will be after his richest win since that year's Champion of Champions.

Tailor Fit does best when campaigned lightly, and trainer Janet VanBebber brings him into the 440-yard MBNA America Challenge Championship with wins in the Grade 1 Remington Park Championship and the Grade 1 Oklahoma Challenge Championship from four starts this year.

In his most recent start, his sole Los Alamitos race in 2001, Tailor Fit was seventh in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Championship when the ground broke out from underneath him at the start.

VanBebber, the leading trainer at Sam Houston Race Park this summer, will also send out War Colors and Gone Kool Man.

Hall of Fame trainer Blane Schvaneveldt saddles Meddlin in Money, winner of the Grade 1 California Challenge Championship and second to last year's world champ A Ransom in the Grade 1 Spencer Childers Handicap.

$175,000 Bayer Legend Challenge

Tiny First Effort and Dashin By put undefeated 2001 records on the line in the 440-yard Bayer Legend for 3-year-olds.

Tiny First Effort, owned by Henry Brown, is 3 for 3 this year, with wins in the Grade 3 California Derby Challenge and the Grade 3 Vandy's Flash Handicap for trainer Donna McArthur.

Dashin Bye, owned by Mike Levi, is also 3 for 3 in 2001. He won the Grade 3 New Mexico Derby Challenge, and he beat older horses in the All American Gold Cup.

$150,000 American Airlines Challenge

Consistency is usually not a hallmark of 2-year-old Quarter Horses, but the entrants in this contentious 350-yard race have won a lot more races than they've lost.

Ronnie Jace won two straight races at Los Alamitos, including the Grade 3 California Juvenile Challenge, before finishing a troubled sixth in the Grade 1 PCQHRA Breeders Futurity, his most recent start.

Rdashin Form started his career with three straight wins, including the Grade 2 Texas Juvenile Challenge, before finishing second in his most recent start, a futurity time trial at Sam Houston.

The unknown factor is Go Shake Em, the winner of two stakes at the Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City. He is making his first start in the United States.

$75,000 MCI Challenge

Sign of Lanty, with 16 wins and four seconds in his last 20 starts, is the solid choice to defend his victory last year in this 870-yard race. In 2000 he set a Lone Star Park track record while winning the MCI Challenge with a stunning late rally.

Sign of Lanty has two stakes wins at this distance at Los Alamitos in his last two starts.

Heavenly Shuttle defeated Sign of Lanty on her home track of Sunland Park in March.

Drip Dry Dash has four wins - three stakes - from six starts this year. He comes off a second in a Los Alamitos allowance race.

$75,000 Centaur Challenge

Linda Te Chick is lightly raced, but fits well against this field of fillies and mares at 400 yards.

Linda Te Chick was second in the Grade 1 Mildred Vessels Handicap for fillies and mares, her latest race.

Big on Charm won the California Distaff Challenge over Linda Te Chick, but Big on Charm then finished behind Linde Te Chick in the Mildred Vessels.