02/26/2004 1:00AM

Bold Merit takes on King Justin


PHOENIX, Ariz. - It's a classic handicapping dilemma: back class or current form? Saturday's $40,000 Palo Verde Handicap for 3-year-olds at 6 1/2 furlongs at Turf Paradise pits two-time stakes winner Bold Merit, returning from more than two months on the shelf, against the sharp King Justin, winner of the Old Line Policy Stakes here Feb. 13. In all, a field of 10 is entered.

Bold Merit carries high weight of 122 pounds on the strength of his strong 2-year-old form in 2003. He was a fine third in his debut last October, behind King Justin, then rattled off three straight big wins: a maiden win, the Fool the Experts, and then the Arizona Juvenile on Dec. 20. In his last victory, by a nose over Bradford, another Saturday foe, Bold Merit earned a 91 Beyer Speed Figure. He has worked strongly for this race for trainer Bryan Porter. Regular rider Steve Gomez has the call.

King Justin beat Bold Merit on Oct. 27, when the two launched their careers. King Justin was third in the Sail on By, then won an allowance race Dec. 19. He returned Feb. 13 and scored a 5 3/4-length win in the Old Line Policy. His Beyer Speed Figure was a solid 72, but obviously he must do better to defeat Bold Merit on Saturday. Trained by Ralph Andersen, King Justin totes 121 pounds and rider Miguel Hernandez.

Bradford, twice second to Bold Merit sprinting here as a 2-year-old, comes off a sixth in the Rattlesnake and a third in the Turf Paradise Derby. Both are routes, however, so the return to a sprint might help him. He carries 119 pounds and Glenn Corbett.

Taiaslew eyes Phoenix Gold Cup

Taiaslew put on a dazzling display in last Saturday's Coyote Handicap, sizzling the six furlongs in 1:07.20 and winning by almost seven lengths. The world and track record for the distance is 1:06.30, set by G Malleah in 1995. Taiaslew's time tied for the sixth-fastest six-furlong clocking ever at Turf Paradise. Trained by David Van Winkle, he easily defeated 1-5 favorite Boston Common, who had shipped in from Southern California, where he had faced graded stakes foes.

Taiaslew's may return in the $100,000 Phoenix Gold Cup on March 13.

Owned by Shelli Tracy and Stan Ryan, the 4-year-old Taiaslew was recently named the top Washington-bred of 2003. He has won 9 of 13 starts and has earnings of $355,241.