At 6, Azeri gets her biggest test

Beating colts in Classic would be icing on cake of honor-filled career

Breeders' Cup notebook

Horse Racing

October 29, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - When Azeri was withdrawn from last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff five days before the race, she seemed on her way to retirement. Laura de Seroux, her California trainer, said she'd injured a tendon and shouldn't have to race again.

But this year, Azeri not only returned to racing for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas but also became North America's richest female thoroughbred of all time. Tomorrow, she will attempt to become the first filly or mare to win the Breeders' Cup Classic when the eight Cup races take place at Lone Star Park outside Dallas.

Michael Paulson, who owns Azeri, said yesterday that the decision to run her in the Classic against the nation's top horses instead of in the Distaff against fillies and mares involved several factors. Perhaps most important, he said, was giving Azeri a chance to make history.

"She's already beaten all the other top fillies and mares this year," said Paulson, whose father, Allen, bred Azeri. "That's part of sport, any sport, always trying to scale the next mountain."

Azeri, 6, was voted Horse of the Year in 2002 and champion older filly and mare in 2002 and 2003. Since the inauguration of North America's formal championships in 1936, no horse has ever been voted champion older filly or mare three times.

Azeri will likely become the first. She's won three Grade I stakes this year, and her main competition, Sightseek, has been retired. If Azeri wins the Classic, then she could also become Horse of the Year for the second time.

"She's been a dream to train," said Lukas, whose fillies and mares have amassed a phenomenal 16 Eclipse Awards, including one Horse of the Year (Lady's Secret in 1986). "I don't think I've ever trained a sounder horse."

Asked about the alleged tendon injury one year ago, Paulson said: "I don't know what they saw that Monday before the Breeders' Cup. I wasn't there."

But, he said, he immediately shipped Azeri from California to Kentucky, where she was examined by several veterinarians and given a clean bill of health. Instead of retiring her, Paulson turned her over to Lukas.

"She just loves to run," Paulson said. "She relishes the competition."

Azeri might even race into her 7-year-old season. Depending on what happens in the Breeders' Cup, Paulson said, she might race until being bred next year in late spring.

Going for four straight

Simon Clare, oddsmaker for Coral bookmakers, one of England's largest, began analyzing European entrants in the Breeders' Cup for Sun readers in 2000. Since 2001, he's come out with a best bet - and gone 3-for-3. Banks Hill paid $14 to win the Filly and Mare Turf in 2001, Storm Flag Flying paid $3.60 to win the Juvenile Fillies in 2002, and Six Perfections paid $12.60 to win the Mile in 2003.

This year, Clare's best bet is Powerscourt in the Turf, despite the American runner Kitten's Joy's being even money in the morning line. Clare said he'll take a top-class Group I European turf horse over a top-class Grade I American turf horse every time.

Clare also said he believes that Six Perfections will win her second straight Mile (and if she doesn't, then Whipper will), that Ouija Board will win the Filly and Mare Turf, that Nebraska Tornado has a good chance to win the Distaff (he liked her chances even before Azeri defected) and that Scandinavia will finish in the top three in the Juvenile.

Et cetera

Horsemen figured Lone Star's turf course would be firm, perhaps too firm for the Europeans' liking. But recent rains have turned it squishy, and the forecast calls for thunderstorms (30 percent) today and tomorrow. The high tomorrow is supposed to be 78 degrees. ...

The dirt track at Lone Star often favors speed and inhibits closers, largely because the stretch is a mere 930 feet (compared to Gulfstream's 952, Santa Anita's 990, Belmont's 1,097 and Churchill's 1,234). Lone Star's track configuration most resembles Santa Anita, site of last year's Breeders' Cup. ...

The only defection from the Breeders' Cup yesterday was In the Gold, who came down with a fever. The Nick Zito-trainee would have competed in the Juvenile Fillies.

At a glance

What: 21st Breeders' Cup

When: Tomorrow

Where: Lone Star Park, Grand Prairie, Texas

Purses: $14.65 million for eight Grade I races

First race: $2 million Distaff, 1:20 p.m.

Headliner: $4 million Classic, 5:35 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4, 1-6 p.m.

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