12/12/2003 12:00AM

Peeking into the 2004 crystal ball


PHOENIX - As usual at this time of year, there are numerous issues to address. Let's try to clear up the fact from the fiction:

* Southern California needs a detention stall - fact.

Trainer Vladimir Cerin circulated a petition this fall that called for increased surveillance of horses before they run, and he's right. There's a perception by some that the so-called "super trainers" are doing it with more than oats and water. Whether it's true doesn't matter. If bettors don't feel confident that everything is on the up and up, they will stop betting - and that means lower purses and less money for owners and trainers.

A detention barn or raceday surveillance camera tells players that every possible attempt is being made to keep the game clean. Like the commercial says: Image is everything.

* Funny Cide won't be a significant factor in 2004 - fiction.

It was sad to see the way Funny Cide's 2003 campaign ended, with losses in the Belmont, Haskell, and Breeders' Cup Classic. But he still has the potential for a big 2004.

After all, it's not like Funny Cide was a one-race wonder. Throw out his Kentucky Derby win, and things were still pretty sweet - a third in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, a second in the Grade 1 Wood, and a win in the Preakness. He also ran third in the Belmont and Grade 1 Haskell, and the owners of a couple of thousand 3-year-olds would have given anything to finish third in those races.

Now Funny Cide is regrouping and pointing for Gulfstream. With no Mineshaft or Empire Maker on the East Coast, it's possible Funny Cide will get back on track.

* Failures by Bob Baffert juveniles mean he'll be on the outside looking in come Triple Crown time - fiction.

Certainly, Baffert's big names have failed to thrive. Even recently, Cooperation and Consecrate ran decently in the $1 million Delta Jackpot, but they still don't look like Derby material. But the cupboard is hardly bare.

Baffert still has at his disposal the likes of Bornwithit, a son of Derby winner Charismatic who broke his maiden by some 24 lengths; Totally Platinum, who's bred to run all day, being by Dynaformer out of a Roberto mare, and who graduated going a route Dec. 3 at Hollywood, earning an 86 Beyer; Misty'sgoldentouch, a son of Belmont winner Touch Gold who won his only outing by daylight at Sam Houston in November; and, maybe the most promising, Wimbledon, a son of Wild Rush who is still a maiden after two starts but has hinted at significant talent.

In other words, count Bob out at your own peril.

* Olmodavor and Quest are ready to have significant impacts on the handicap division in 2004 - fact.

They had been waiting to bust out, and it happened in the past few weeks. Quest had been lost in the shadow of the big boys all year, but his win in the Grade 2 Clark showed he's figured this game out. Expect big things. Ditto for Olmodavor.

Last year, he got tossed in against the likes of Medaglia d'Oro and Mineshaft, and although Olmodavor was unable to match them, he still ran extremely well. His powerful win in the Grade 2 Native Diver last week shows his quality and that he's fully back and fit after having an ankle chip removed.

* Richard Mandella will put his brilliant filly Halfbridled on the path to the Derby - fiction.

I hear the talk already. Heck, I hear it every year. Not a calendar gets flipped over without all this tubthumping for the big fillies to take on the boys in the Derby. Everyone points to how superior some fillies are to colts in the winter, but it doesn't stay that way. They're like teenage humans. Girls mature faster than boys do, but the boys catch up.

And Mandella is one of the most careful men around. There's no way he'll be sucked into the notion of Halfbridled facing the boys in the Derby, particularly when he has his own stock of potential Derby males. Baffert and Lukas may think in those terms. Mandella doesn't.

* There will be someone to fill the shoes left by Joe Hirsch - fiction.