04/01/2005 1:00AM

Older, maybe better

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Kela, winner of two graded Del Mar stakes last year, has raced below par his last two races.

ARCADIA, Calif. - When an 8-year-old earns a career-best speed figure in his 42nd start, cynical handicappers expect the veteran to retreat next out. But on Sunday at Santa Anita, trainer John Sadler suggests doing that would be a mistake.

Ten sprinters will race 6 1/2 furlongs in the Grade 2 Potrero Grande Handicap, and the Sadler-trained is the horse to beat if he duplicates the Beyer Speed Figure of 105 he earned last month winning the Grade 2 San Carlos Handicap. It was the ninth win from 42 starts for Hasty Kris.

"He's gotten a little bit better with age, and he's sounder now at 8 than he was at 3 or 4," Sadler said.

It helps that Hasty Kris has faced modest foes, and Sunday it is more of the same. The West Coast sprint division has been leaderless since last summer. So whose turn is it Sunday?

won consecutive graded sprints last year at Del Mar. No horse since then has won successive graded sprints in Southern California. Kela, who ran below par his last two starts, is the 118-pound co-highweight Sunday with Saint Afleet, upset winner of the Grade 2 Palos Verdes Handicap in his last start Jan. 23.

Hasty Kris (117), Saint Afleet, and Kela form the nucleus of the Potrero Grande, while seven others will aim for upsets. Onebadshark, Roi Charmant, and Jungle Prince will contest the pace; Ice Wynnd Fire and Perfect Moon will press; and Harvard Avenue and Rushin' to Altar are deep closers.

Before the draw, Sadler said he would "prefer to draw outside." Wish granted - Hasty Kris drew post 9 in the 10-horse field and will be ridden by Rene Douglas, who has established himself as a top-five rider in Southern California with no plans to leave. Sadler expects Hasty Kris to maintain form.

"His races have been well spaced," Sadler said. "He actually gets better. He's unique."

And the gelding also runs best at Santa Anita - 17 races here have produced 6 victories and 6 seconds.

To win the Potrero Grande, Hasty Kris must catch Saint Afleet. Pat Valenzuela rode Saint Afleet to victory last time, and worked him six furlongs Monday, and said, "He's coming up to the race good; I think he'll win."

Trained by Jeff Mullins, Saint Afleet has won 5 of 9 starts.

Trainer Mike Mitchell said Kela did not care for the racing surfaces in his last two starts, and expects the millionaire to return to form Sunday.

"He's back to his old self, trying to kill everybody," Mitchell said.