12/06/2002 1:00AM

Give me the third choice in Corona


Habibti has a gift that many people wish they had. A Bob Baffert-trained 3-year-old filly, Habibti can eat whatever she wants. She

doesn't gain a pound. In fact, Baffert has trouble keeping the weight on her. That's great for the ordinary person. It's not so great for a racehorse in need of muscle, stamina, and energy.

Habibti, the 121-pound highweight for Sunday's Corona Handicap at six furlongs at Hollywood Park, hit the peak of her career last December with a victory over You in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet. She continued to perform well last winter and spring, finishing second in the Las Virgenes Stakes and Santa Anita Oaks, both times to You, before running a good third in the Kentucky Oaks and then going on summer vacation. Since her return, however, Habibti has turned in two disappointing efforts: at Del Mar in September and at Churchill Downs in November.

Her vacation wasn't planned. "Habibti got really light on me this spring and wasn't doing well," said Baffert. "All horses take a lull, and Habibti has really started to come around again lately."

Baffert recently spoke of a similar coming-around for another top runner of his, Congaree, who had a huge win in the Cigar Mile Nov. 30. Maybe Habibti is ready to snap back to life.

Another major contender in the Corona is Madame Pietra, who was assigned 120 pounds. A 5-year-old mare, she has recently flashed some of the best form of her career. She has 2 victories and 3 seconds in her last five starts and comes off an impressive win in the Cascapedia Handicap at Santa Anita Oct. 31.

Madame Pietra has won 4 of 13 starts and earned $191,685. She is trained by Howard Zucker. "I raced her sparingly as a young filly. She was not very hardy," Zucker said. "But she's turned into a hickory mare. If she runs back to her Cascapedia, I don't know who would beat her."

But the Corona is a case of Habibti trying to regain her best form and Madame Pietra attempting to maintain her's, and both figure to be short prices. There might be trouble for both.

When Channing Way shows up on the track, she means business. A 4-year-old mare, she has won 11 of 16 starts and is trained by Dan Morgan. She has won at Turf Paradise, Bay Meadows, Solano, Santa Rosa, and, importantly, at Hollywood. She has won 5 of her last 6 starts, the only loss coming when she ran 12th while racing on the downhill turf course at Santa Anita in the Nov. 2 Cal Cup Distaff Handicap.

Channing Way has speed and knows how to fight. If the race is a scrap, she is likely the one to get to the wire first. In her last six races in which the margin of a victory was a neck or less, she won.

After her Cal Cup debacle, she shipped to Turf Paradise for a classified allowance race Nov. 15 and came away a narrow winner. That race shows she is back on track. With Madame Pietra and Habibti in the 2-1 or 5-2 range, Channing Way, at 119 pounds, might be approximately 9-2, and that might make betting her the way to go.

Kudos Dress to Thrill, Johar, and Good Journey

Three brilliant performances were turned in during the Turf Festival last week.

Dress to Thrill was spectacular winning the Matriarch, validating her strong European form before her Breeders' Cup Mile debacle. When you beat Golden Apples and Banks Hill, as Dress to Thrill did in the Matriarch, you've done something pretty strong. Dress to Thrill is only a 3-year-old, too, and she should come back bigger and meaner next year as she stays in the U.S. and with trainer Christophe Clement.

Meanwhile, Johar overcame a terrible start, poor early position, and a pace scenario that was thoroughly against him to win the Hollywood Derby. Johar had always had ability. He just hadn't separated himself from the crowd. In fact, for most of the summer he played second fiddle on the Southern California circuit to Inesperado. That no longer applies. Johar is the one now, and there's no reason he can't go on and be a player among the turf set next year.

But to me the loudest cymbal clash came in Good Journey's Citation Handicap win. Sure, he had won the race in 2001, but I didn't really know what he had. Now I do. After wins in such races as the Grade 2 Firecracker and Grade 1 Atto Mile, and a third in the BC Mile, he put an exclamation point on his efforts with a powerful Citation score. His connections apparently are attempting to sell him as a stallion prospect, but he could still be seen in the Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita in early March then in Dubai before going off to stud.