06/16/2002 11:00PM

Speedsters to duel in Kerlan

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - With a front-runner in Rocky Bar and a stalker in Tavasco, trainer Kory Owens has the competition surrounded in Wednesday's $75,000 Robert Kerlan Memorial Stakes.

Run over 5 1/2 furlongs on turf, the Kerlan has drawn a solid field that has made the race worth the wait. Originally scheduled for last Friday, the race was postponed until Sunday because it failed to draw sufficient entries. It was postponed again to Wedneday after failing to fill Sunday.

The Kerlan is the seventh race on an eight-race program.

The Owens duo face two starters trained by Bobby Frankel, Blu Air Force and Igman; the front-running Astonished, who is in great form; and Gallant, who was fourth in a one-mile turf race on May 26.

Tavasco has not started since finishing a close second in the Grade 3 Vernon Underwood Stakes last December. A 5-year-old with two stakes wins, Tavasco has run well off a layoff in the past.

But regarding Wednesday's race, Owens said: "He needs an out."

In his only start on turf, Tavasco finished first in an allowance race over 5 1/2 furlongs here last November, but was disqualified and placed fourth. The ruling still irks Owens.

"I thought it was a terrible decision," Owens said.

Rocky Bar has more turf experience. A winner of 2 of 4 starts on grass, he gave Owens his first winner of the meeting in an allowance race over 5 1/2 furlongs on turf on May 11. At Lone Star Park on May 27, Rocky Bar was sixth in the Beck Auto Group Turf Sprint Handicap, losing by seven lengths after encountering trouble through the final turn under Garrett Gomez.

"Garrett said if a hole would have opened up, then he might have been fine," Owens said. "He said he didn't give up but he lost concentration on what he was supposed to do."

Rocky Bar is best from the front, and so is Astonished, the likely favorite. Trained by Sandy Shulman, Astonished has won two of his last three turf sprints, with the loss a second by a head in the Grade 3 San Simeon Handicap at Santa Anita on April 21. The 6-year-old Astonished was a comfortable winner of an allowance race on May 17.

Speed has done well in turf sprints at Hollywood Park this summer, making a potential duel between Rocky Bar and Astonished an enticing prospect.

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