First act on Cup's stage could steal show

Distaff field has Azeri, possible Horse of Year

October 24, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. -- The allure of the Breeders' Cup over the Kentucky Derby is that the Breeders' Cup is really eight Kentucky Derbys, one after the other, showcasing the best horses in the world by age, distance, surface and gender.

On Saturday, when the $13.9 million, eight-race spectacle takes place at Arlington Park, it will begin with potentially the best.

Kicking off the parade at 1:20 p.m., the $1 million Distaff features a filly who could become Horse of the Year, a filly who would ignite a victory celebration like few others in Breeders' Cup history and at least four other fillies capable of setting off fireworks before TV sets around the world even warm up.

The Distaff attracted only eight horses, but it is perhaps the most highly competitive race of Breeders' Cup XIX. Discard the two long shots, and the remaining six fillies have won 45 of 73 races, including 12 Grade I stakes.

Azeri, the California phenomenon, has won nine of 10 races and finished second in the other. She enters the Distaff with a six-race win streak and supporters chanting: "Horse of the Year, Horse of the Year."

No female has won racing's highest honor since Lady's Secret in 1986. Lady's Secret defeated males in the Whitney Handicap. And the filly All Along, voted Horse of the Year in 1983, beat males in three races in this country.

Azeri has never raced males, and she won't, of course, in the Distaff. But if she wins against females again, and the top male contenders for Horse of the Year falter in the Classic, Azeri could gain the honor.

Her trainer, Laura de Seroux, says that makes perfect sense to her. Why does a filly or mare have to beat colts and geldings to be voted Horse of the Year?

"I think that's a myth propagated by journalists," de Seroux said yesterday to a group of about a dozen journalists, all of whom were male except one. "It's not Horse of the Males or Horse of the Race. It's Horse of the Year.

"In all of Azeri's victories, she hasn't been in danger of losing. She's done that all year long. Isn't that what Horse of the Year is supposed to be?"

No criteria exists for Horse of the Year. The journalists, Daily Racing Form employees and racing secretaries who vote could deem the winner to be the horse they think could beat all others in a race. Or they could deem it to be the horse who accomplishes the most within its division.

Azeri has been nearly unbeatable against fillies and mares. She is a 4-year-old daughter of Jade Hunter bred by Allen E. Paulson, who bred five Breeders' Cup winners, more than anyone else. One of the five was Cigar, who won the Classic in 1995. Paulson died in 2002.

De Seroux, 50, has been training horses only three years, but for 15 years she exercised horses for the legendary Charlie Whittingham. She calls him a surrogate father.

A victory in her first Breeders' Cup with Azeri or her other two entrants -- Dublino in the Filly and Mare Turf and Ballingarry in the Turf -- would cap a storybook year for de Seroux. Her horses have earned about $2.8 million from only 89 starts, of which 24 were wins and 14 were stakes. Seven were Grade I, and Azeri won four of those.

"She's the perfect combination of speed and stamina," de Seroux said. "She's an absolute study in conformation. ... She absolutely leaps off the ground, like an African cat when she runs."

Chasing the cat will be a Brazilian-owned and -trained filly named Farda Amiga. The 3-year-old daughter of Broad Brush has raced only twice in the past seven months, but she won both: the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes, the most prestigious stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

After each win, her Brazilian connections erupted into song and celebration in the winner's circle.

"That's the Brazilian style," said Jose DeCamargo, a native of Brazil who buys and sells horses, operates a farm in Kentucky and owns Farda Amiga with two Brazilian partners. "It's something we're born with, something you in this country might call spirit."

Godolphin Racing's Imperial Gesture, winner of two straight Grade I's, will probably challenge Azeri for the early lead. And Summer Colony, the only horse to defeat Azeri and winner of nine of 12 races around two turns, will probably challenge down the stretch.

Don't overlook Mandy's Gold, who has won nine of 16 races and never been worse than third, and Take Charge Lady. Trained by Ken McPeek and ridden by Edgar Prado, Take Charge Lady has won nine of 12 and could very well be nine for 13 after the Distaff.

"I think she's going to be very difficult to beat," McPeek said of Take Charge Lady. "I know Azeri is getting a lot of hype out of California, but I don't think the West Coast horses have been nearly as stellar as ones on the East Coast. I think you could make a case that whoever wins this race could possibly be Horse of the Year."

Breeders' Cup

What:Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships


Where:Arlington Park, Arlington Heights, Ill.

TV:Chs. 11, 4, 1 p.m.

Feature race:$4 million Breeders' Cup Classic (post time 5:35 p.m.)

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