01/21/2005 12:00AM

Taste of Paradise in tougher field

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Taste of Paradise will be out to prove that his upset win in the Vernon Underwood Stakes last month was not a fluke when he starts in Sunday's $150,000 Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita.

Until the Grade 3 Underwood at Hollywood Park on Dec. 5, Taste of Paradise was considered best in long sprints or races at a mile or farther, an opinion supported by his front-running win in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at 1 1/16 miles in August 2003.

But the Underwood showed a new level of ability from Taste of Paradise. Making his first start for trainer Gary Mandella, Taste of Paradise, 6, rallied from third to win the six-furlong Underwood by a nose at 26-1.

In Sunday's Grade 2 Palos Verdes Handicap at six furlongs, Taste of Paradise faces a better field.

The top contenders include , the winner of the Grade 2 Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap last March; defending champion Bluesthestandard, who finished second in the 2003 Breeders' Cup Sprint; and Hombre Rapido and Woke Up Dreamin, who finished second and third in the El Conejo Handicap here on Jan. 2.

Mandella and owner David Bloom are using Sunday's race as a test of whether Taste of Paradise can be competitive against some of the best sprinters in California, or whether to consider longer races.

"We need to find out how competitive he is at six furlongs," Mandella said. "We're kind of stepping up a half-level, and that's good. We need to find out."

could get an ideal trip. Woke Up Dreamin, who made his stakes debut in the El Conejo, and Stone Rain, who finished sixth after leading early in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes over seven furlongs on Dec. 26, have the two inside post positions and will be prominent early.

Taste of Paradise should be well-placed as a stalker.

Stone Rain, who is seeking his first stakes win, starts for trainer John Sadler, who also saddles Hombre Rapido. Sadler trained Taste of Paradise until a year ago, when Bloom bought out a partner.

A big threat is McCann's Mojave, who has a style similar to Taste of Paradise's, but can also be close to the lead. "He's got speed, but not that blinding kind of speed," trainer Leonard Dorfman said.

McCann's Mojave will be ridden for the first time by David Flores. He replaces Jose Valdivia Jr., who stays with Taste of Paradise.