01/08/2002 1:00AM

Baffert sees the Derby in filly Habibti's future


ARCADIA, Calif. - Bob Baffert and Wayne Lukas each will nominate eight to 10 horses to the Triple Crown this week, but there is plenty of sorting out to do before either trainer can name his leading candidate to the spring classics.

"If they were to run the Derby in two weeks, I'd run Habibti," Baffert said Tuesday. "The fillies are better than the colts right now. We're going to nominate her to leave our options open. If things fell apart, we'd consider running her there instead of the Oaks."

Habibti, winner of the Del Mar Debutante and Hollywood Starlet, will aim for the March 9 Santa Anita Oaks as her first major goal, with a possible start Feb. 10 in the Las Virgenes Stakes.

Habibti would not be the first Baffert filly to start in the Kentucky Derby. Excellent Meeting finished fifth in the 1999 Derby, a day after Baffert-trained Silverbulletday won the Oaks. So far this year, Baffert's colts are relatively undistinguished. He said he is not rushing, and will allow them to develop at their own pace.

"Right now, [trainer David] Hofmans has the strong hand with Siphonic and Future Minister," Baffert said.

Baffert said her will nominate "nine or 10" colts to the Triple Crown, including Popular, his most advanced 3-year-old colt. A son of Saint Ballado, Popular will run six furlongs Sunday in the Grade 3 San Miguel, and Baffert suggests that bettors disregard his seventh-place finish in an allowance race Dec. 26. Popular previously ran second in the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue.

"He was doing the Mexican hat dance all the way to the gate, and he got hot," Baffert said, explaining why Popular ran so poorly that day. "The thing about these young horses is that they're still learning. They can be so unpredictable."

Indeed, winter is when top colts often show improvement, and Lukas may have a sleeper in the maiden Distinction.

"This time of year, 3-year-olds really start to turn," Lukas said. "I know people roll their eyes when we say that, but the four Derby winners I've had all made that forward move January, February, and March."

Distinction, a $4.2 million son of Seattle Slew, finished third in a Dec. 30 maiden race at 1 1/16 miles, but the result does no justice to his performance. Setting unmerciful fractions of 46.41 seconds and 1:10.69 while starting for the first time in two months, Distinction weakened in the final eighth of a mile. The pace figure he earned in the race was outstanding, as was a subsequent workout.

Monday morning, Distinction turned in a blistering 45.20 workout that convinced Lukas he has turned the corner after five starts. "He's really starting to change, and he worked awesome," Lukas said. "He still has some maturing to do, but I don't think he'll have any trouble with two turns."

Distinction will get to stretch his speed later, because Lukas is considering shortening him to one turn this weekend, supplementing him to the six-furlong San Miguel. Based on the fractions Distinction set running long and his blistering Monday work, he would fit in the San Miguel despite having yet to win a race.

The San Miguel favorite is expected to be Sunny Slope Stakes winner Roman Dancer, starting for the first time since a disappointing sixth Nov. 17 in the Hollywood Prevue. In addition to Popular and possibly Distinction, others who may start in the San Miguel include Bringem Jung, Expected Program, and Royal Moro.

Stormin' Heaven live in San Fernando

Stormin' Heaven worked an easy half-mile Tuesday (the work did not make the tab), and enters Saturday's Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes as a potential upsetter, against Native Diver winner Momentum (the likely favorite) and Hollywood Derby fourth-place finisher Western Pride. Stormin' Heaven has won three straight starts and is making his stakes debut in the 1 1/16-mile San Fernando.

"He's a lightly raced, improving horse," trainer Bob Hess said. "This race will either point him to the Strub, or point him back to turf."

A full field is expected for the $200,000 San Fernando, including Bring Home Thegold, Discreet Hero, Fancy As, I Love Silver, Orientate, Pie N Burger, and Reef Diver.

* Gene Williams of Triple Crown Productions is at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park this week and next, securing nominations to the Triple Crown. The early deadline is Jan. 19, with a cost of $600 to nominate to all three races - the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.

* Former jockey Corey Black will be in the spotlight on Super Bowl Sunday. Black was at Santa Anita Tuesday to pick up tack he will use in filming a television commercial this week for Visa that will air during the Super Bowl telecast. In the commercial, Black said he will be on horseback, "competing" against an auto racing driver, and a star from track and field. Black, who worked as a jockey agent for a while after retiring, is working in the real estate business.