11/07/2002 12:00AM

Habibti the pick to defeat elders


If you're still suffering Breeders' Cup withdrawal, sick to the stomach over the subsequent Breeders' Cup pick six scandal, and sad watching many top horses either pack it in for the year or retire, it's easy to be apathetic about Saturday's stakes schedule. And that's a mistake. As someone who cut his handicapping teeth on $1,500 claimers in New England at a time when $1,500 wasn't even the bottom, I know a race doesn't have to have Grade 1 status or a seven-figure purse to be beautiful from a betting standpoint.

The truth is, Saturday's $200,000 Churchill Downs Distaff Handicap is a very interesting race. So is the $100,000 Athenia Handicap at Aqueduct, and so is the $125,000 Matiara Stakes at Hollywood Park, which I would have featured below if not for the added wildcard of rain in the forecast.

Here are the three spotlighted stakes:

Churchill Downs Distaff: Trip's a bet-against

I'm hoping that with a big 110 Beyer Figure in her last start, and with Pat Day aboard, Trip will be the favorite here. The lower the price on Trip, the better, because I plan on betting against her.

Trip's win last time out in the Turfway Park Breeders' Cup will drive her price down, but it took place over a track on which Trip is 4 for 4. Trip fans will counter with the fact that she is 7 for 23 elsewhere. That isn't bad. But what convinces me that Trip is a monster at Turfway and merely a nice mare who is vulnerable elsewhere, is the fact that the three times Trip eclipsed the triple-digit Beyer barrier it occurred at Turfway.

Habibti is my pick. Habibti has been carefully handled this year, but has been training at Churchill for more than a month for this, and she had a big work early this week. Habibti was a game third over the track in the Kentucky Oaks despite reports she didn't train well for that race. It doesn't bother me that she will be meeting older horses for the first time. Take Charge Lady's victory in the Spinster and Imperial Gesture's win in the Beldame this fall proved how well this year's 3-year-old fillies match up against older horses not named Azeri.

Athenia: French import Polygreen? Oui!

When I look at Polygreen's past performances, I see Breeders' Cup Mile upsetter Domedriver. I see, like Domedriver, an import from France who wasn't quite top class, but who wasn't far away, either - and who showed a big late kick in her best performances. One of those performances was a fourth three starts back to Turtle Bow, who later just missed in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl in her first start in the U.S.

The big difference between the profiles of Polygreen and Domedriver is that Polygreen doesn't have to worry Saturday about anyone in the class of Rock of Gibraltar. That's why I'm going with Polygreen.

I am, however, worried about Strawberry Blonde here. Strawberry Blonde didn't compile as good a record in France as Polygreen did. But she has already made a successful transition to American racing, winning last month at Belmont with a late kick that will make her dangerous in a lot of races like this.

Slots Cup: Parose to avenge last defeat

If you don't like races like this, then you don't like racing. What we have here is a good-sized field of hard-knocking types, several of them old-timers, and all of them still going strong. The race is so competitive that a case can be made for six of the 10 entered. Of these six, four - Dream Launcher, Parose, Lucky Molar, and Lil Personalitee - seem a slight cut above. But you can throw a blanket over these four, which ensures a terrific betting race.

I'll take Parose to avenge his near five-length loss to Dream Launcher in the Durham Cup last time out. Parose, who had previously won two of three over the track (and it could have been three for three were it not for a lost whip), was coming off a 2 1/2-month layoff in the Durham Cup.

Rustiness caused him to be uncharacteristically far back even into the middle stages of the race, but he did kick late, and I like the way he has worked since.