02/07/2006 12:00AM

Hot speedster clashes with in-form closer

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Austin Barber, a wickedly fast front-runner, should have lost his last start after setting unbearable fractions. Instead, he won.

Kewen, a rapidly improved late-runner, could have won his last start but he was blocked most of the stretch. Instead, he lost.

Worlds collide Thursday at Santa Anita, where the speedball meets the closer in a turf sprint with two possible outcomes - either Austin Barber wires the field or Kewen wins from behind. Eight others entered the two-other-than/optional $62,500 claiming race, and creative bettors might build a case for Art Moderne, Crystal Castle, or Balavista.

But race 7 boils down to two main contenders that have just one similarity. Both were plucked from the claiming ranks by their current connections, and both have blossomed.

A 5-year-old gelding, was claimed Oct. 10 for $40,000 by trainer Mike Mitchell. His improvement was immediate. Three weeks after the claim, in his first start for Mitchell, Austin Barber led throughout in a $50,000 turf route claimer. Progress stalled when Austin Barber weakened in a similar dirt race, but in his next two starts he was untouchable.

Austin Barber led wire to wire Dec. 26 in another mile turf claimer, then stepped up to $62,500 claiming on Jan. 13 and ran wild. He set insane fractions (45.32 seconds and 1:08.90), appeared in danger of getting swallowed into the lane, then kept going to win by almost three lengths. Few horses survive after going that fast on the Santa Anita course, and if Austin Barber reproduces his effort Thursday he can be gone again.

The difference is Austin Barber is running in a downhill sprint Thursday. His kamikaze style should allow him and jockey Javier Santiago to run away from the field. With a 6-for-30 record, Austin Barber enters as the most likely winner.

But he will have to hold off , who was claimed Sept. 28 for $40,000 by trainer Vladimir Cerin. Five weeks after the claim, Kewen won an $80,000 turf sprint claimer, and then was downright unlucky in his last start Jan. 12.

Racing under the same conditions as Thursday, Kewen pulled hard, was blocked for most of the final quarter-mile, and got clear too late. He rallied into second, galloped out super, and probably was best. He can win Thursday if Austin Barber weakens out front. Kewen has won 3 of 22 starts, and will be ridden for the first time by Garrett Gomez.

Others in the field include , Whata Soldier, General Fox, and Orbits World.