09/27/2001 11:00PM

Staying home appears right move for Habibti


ARCADIA, Calif. - Habibti stayed home, which is unwelcome news for her six rivals in the Grade 1 Oak Leaf Stakes for 2-year-old fillies Sunday at Santa Anita.

Bob Baffert considered running her in next weekend's Frizette at Belmont Park after Habibti's dazzling win in the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante, but opted for the $250,000 Oak Leaf.

The mile race came up weaker than the Frizette, and gives the light-framed Habibti an extra week before the Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Although five of her rivals won their most recent start, none have run as fast as Habibti, who will be odds-on as she tries to give Baffert his fifth consecutive Oak Leaf win.

Owned by Prince Ahmed Salman, Habibti, who is 2 for 2, faces impressive maiden winners Ayanna, Imperial Gesture, and Tali'sluckybusride; minor stakes winners Roaring Blaze and Whitewinesipper; and maiden Ms Louisett.

The Oak Leaf is the first try around two turns for six of the seven runners, most of them front-runners. The fastest is Ayanna, a filly by In Excess who raced gate to wire in her last start Aug. 25 at Del Mar. Notwithstanding the presence of Habibti, Ayanna's trainer Kory Owens sees the two turns as Ayanna's main impediment.

"It's going to be a little troublesome," Owens said. "She's been getting a little rank on the front end. She likes to throw very fast opening quarters."

In fact, Ayanna raced the opening quarter-mile in 21.60 seconds or less in all three of her starts. Owens hopes Ayanna inherited stamina from her Sovereign Dancer dam, Dance Play. However, Dance Play's 1-for-14 record at a mile or more hints Ayanna may be in trouble running long.

Likewise, runaway maiden winner Imperial Gesture, who wore front wraps in both her starts, figures as a pace casualty. A half-sister to the brilliant Sardula, Imperial Gesture was being pointed to the Belmont Matron after her 10 3/4-length win in a Saratoga maiden race, but plans were revised when the Matron was canceled. Subsequent works suggest Imperial Gesture, by Langfuhr, will be found wanting in the lane.

Whitewinesipper and Tali'sbusride add more pace to the Oak Leaf. Theoretically, that benefits Habibti. Sired by Tabasco Cat, Habibti won both her starts from off the pace, displaying a willingness to rate and finish. Subsequent workouts have been impressive.

Said Baffert: "I just hope I keep her sound. That's the whole deal - keep 'em healthy."

Perhaps the only potential flaw of Habibti is her "unbalanced" running style. Though her Beyer Speed Figures of 99 and 95 top the field, the figures were earned with a burst of late speed rather than a uniform output of speed. That style is often characteristic of a late-running sprinter potentially compromised around two turns. But Baffert has long stated his belief Habibti will do better at longer distances.

The wagering dilemma is two-fold: Take the short price in the win pool, or find an overlay in the exotics. Roaring Blaze won the 1 1/16-mile Black Swan Stakes (72 Beyer) last out at Fairplex Park, and is the only starter proven over a route of ground.