08/30/2002 11:00PM

Patience pays: Inda feels it's Kela's moment

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Slowly, methodically, and with great care, trainer Eduardo Inda has let Kela progress through his allowance conditions. Now, after four victories and three second-place finishes in eight starts, it is time for Kela to, at last, step up and face stakes competition.

"He's ready," Inda said.

Kela might be the best older horse at Del Mar who has never run in a stakes race. But he has beaten stakes-class competition. He comes off a victory here on July 27 in a classified allowance race against Hot Market, who subsequently finished second in the Pat O'Brien Handicap. Kela will get his sternest test yet on Monday, when he is expected to face the likes of Congaree and Euchre in the $200,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Inda, who is preternaturally disposed to taking his time with his horses, last year was forced to give Kela an extended vacation because the colt became body-sore. Rather than press on, Inda - in concert with like-minded owner Aaron Jones - decided to bring Kela back fresh this year.

The schedule has worked. Kela (pronounced "KAY-lah," according to Jones) has rounded into top form, with consecutive victories, including a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 108 in his last start.

"We thought if we gave him some time off he'd come back right," Inda said. "We always thought he would be a good horse. When he broke his maiden, he beat Orientate. Corey Nakatani rode Orientate that day, and I know they were high on him. He told me, 'You beat a nice horse.' "

Jones said Inda's approach to training mirrors the owner's philosophy.

"He's from the old school. We mesh well," Jones, a lumber magnate, said from his office in Eugene, Ore. "I don't believe in tearing up a horse trying to win a race. I'd rather see a horse retire sound on four legs. We decided to back off and give him a good, big rest."

It is probably fate that Jones, who owns horses with his wife, Marie, and Inda ended up together. One of Jones's first trainers was the late Laz Barrera, who trained the likes of Lemhi Gold and Tiffany Lass for Jones. Nearly 50 years ago, Barrera and another Hall of Fame trainer, Ron McAnally, were struggling trainers who roomed together.

When Barrera died, Jones moved his horses to McAnally, whose top assistant at the time was Inda. Jones had other trainers during the 1990's, then moved the bulk of his horses to Inda two years ago. Completing the connection is Larry Barrera, one of Laz's sons, who is a stable manager for Jones and is at Inda's side nearly every morning at Del Mar. Inda said he has 14 horses for Jones in a public stable that numbers 22.

Jones also has a handful of horses with Neil Drysdale. Jones stays on top of his racing interests from his office in Oregon, though this summer he has been consumed by the wildfires that are threatening some of the 160,000 acres of timberland he owns.

"It makes me nervous," Jones said.

In two years, Inda and Jones have had plenty of success. Their best runner was the champion mare Riboletta, the Eclipse Award-winning older female of 2000. Inda also trains Riboletta's younger sister, Tamara Princess, who is coming back from a layoff. Inda also trained Forest Camp and Prime Timber late in their careers after Jones split with trainer Bob Baffert.

Kela, a 4-year-old colt by Numerous, was purchased as a yearling for $150,000. Inda said Kela is "powerful."

"He has a big neck. He looks like a bull," Inda said. "He's a very strong horse. But he's nice to be around. He has a good disposition. He has such a big body, he could scare you, but he's nice."

Kela has thrived at Del Mar, where he has two victories and a second-place finish in three starts. He has yet to accomplish as much as Forest Camp, let alone Riboletta, but there is hope he could be that good.

"I probably shouldn't say this," Jones said, "but I think he's as good a horse as there is at Del Mar right now."