11/16/2001 12:00AM

Predicting the future


PHOENIX - The curtain doesn't come down on the racing stage with the end of the Breeders' Cup. Still, you do get a sense that as soon as the roars die down from the big day, the rest of the year's racing is more like the onset of the next season.

With that in mind, it won't surprise me in the least if:

- Johannesburg comes back to the States and wins the Derby.

I know, I know - he doesn't fit the profile of a Derby winner. But you know what? He didn't fit the profile of a Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner either, yet if he had extricated himself earlier in midstretch he might have won that race by four or more instead of just over a length.

His connections know how to target a race, and the horse showed he could ship and beat the best on dirt. That's something to like as you look toward next May.

- Val Royal turns out to be even better than Julio Canani's other Mile winner, Silic.

Val Royal may be 5, but he has run only 10 times (with seven wins), and just three times since September 1999. He still has a lot of racing in him and may only be tapping into an enormous well of talent.

Silic had distance limitations - one mile and two steps was pushing it for him. Val Royal, on the other hand, was a Grade 2 winner in France as a 3-year-old at 1 1/8 miles. He has matured and developed the ability to settle, so it wouldn't be surprising if he could be effective at up to

1 1/4 miles, like Lure, Paradise Creek, or Star of Cozzene. Of course, let's see how he fares in Hong Kong and how well he ships back from that grueling trip.

- Habibti turns out to be the best of a good group of 2002 3-year-old fillies.

Tempera is certainly the deserving champion, Bella Bellucci has star written all over her, All Told holds enormous promise, and You certainly isn't through after one so-so outing. Habibti, however, may have been the most impressive 2-year-old of the season when she won the Del Mar Debutante over Tempera. Short on seasoning, trapped inside at a trip short of her best, she wanted to run over horses. When she finally found room inside she blew through like a pro.

The Juvenile Fillies was her target all along, but a fever kept her from her prep, the Oak Leaf, so she surely went into the race the wrong way. It showed. She's by Tabasco Cat, so she wants to run long, and trainer Bob Baffert has regrouped and has plenty of time to make the Hollywood Starlet, where she can stamp herself a Kentucky Oaks candidate again.

- Bienamado comes back to be a major power again.

In some respects he has been the most disappointing of stars. He has hinted at Manila-like ability, but on one of racing's biggest stages, the Arlington Million, he has, two years in a row, run poorly and exited the race hurt. The target for him the past two years has been the Breeders' Cup Turf. He failed to even make that race because the injuries in the Millions knocked him out.

Trainer Paco Gonzalez says everything is on for a January return in Southern California, with the main target the $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic at 1 1/2 miles on turf at Nad al Sheba on

March 23.

- Flute gets her revenge and becomes the dominant older filly in the country.

We have learned one thing about her - she doesn't want to race inside. That was the primary cause of her losses in New York, not a bad rail. She never looked as comfortable as when she was going around horses. Trainer Bobby Frankel figures to give her whatever time she needs to come back.

Her family (Honest Lady, Chester House, mother Toussaud) all got better with age. That's bad news for the rest of a division that lacks firepower.

- Volponi wins next week's Cigar Mile at a price.

Last year it was a couple of hot up-and-comers, El Corredor and Peeping Tom, who beat the grizzled veterans who were coming off the Breeders' Cup, Affirmed Success, More Than Ready, and Golden Missile. This year it could be Volponi.

- Starine bounces back to win in the Matriach.

Not that it mattered, considering the monster effort by Filly and Mare Turf winner Banks Hill, but Starine employed a style completely out of her norm in that race and came up with the needle on empty turning for home. She's much better than that, and the firmer footing of the West Coast turf courses may be just what she wants.

- Ron McAnally gets back in the spotlight with a new South American star.

Ivory Tower, Argentina's champion 3-year-old filly, is working up a storm and nearing her U.S. debut. McAnally knows a thing or two about success with those from the Southern hemisphere (Bayakoa, Paseana, Different, Potridee). With Flute probably on vacation till spring, the power of the division rests with Spain and Unbridled Elaine. They're good, but Ivory Tower could be picking the right time to come Stateside.