03/28/2003 1:00AM

All systems go for Azeri

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - When you're the Horse of the Year, you've got to carry weight in handicap races. But what's the standard when the horse in question is making her first start of the year in a Grade 1?

Pat Pope, racing secretary at Oaklawn Park, answered that question Friday when he assigned Azeri top weight of 123 pounds for Saturday's $500,000 Apple Blossom.

The impost is four pounds less than what Azeri carried in her final handicap appearance last year, when she won the Grade 2, $200,000 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup by 3 1/2 lengths Oct. 2. Following that race, she won the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 26 to close out her season.

Laura de Seroux, who trains Azeri for the Allen Paulson Living Trust, was not surprised by the weight assignment for the Apple Blossom, which Azeri won in 2002.

"I see what they've done," she said. "They're taking into consideration the long layoff, the beginning of a long year. They're correct to start her out at the weight she left off at. She carried 123 in the Breeders' Cup."

Now 5, Azeri was scheduled to breeze five furlongs at her San Luis Rey Training Center base in Southern California on Saturday, then fly to Oaklawn on Wednesday. She had four probable opponents as of Friday: Take Charge Lady, 118, who is scheduled to arrive from Florida on Thursday; Affluent, 117; Mandy's Gold, 116; and Rhiana, 110.

De Seroux guided Azeri through an 8-for-9 campaign last year that started with a two-other-than win in January and concluded with a five-length romp in the Breeders' Cup, which cemented her Horse of the Year credentials.

"She came through on all her promises," said de Seroux.

De Seroux gave Azeri a "complete rest" after the Breeders' Cup, but kept her at her San Luis Rey base, where there are turn-out facilities and grazing areas. Azeri returned to walking under tack in mid-December, was back galloping in early January, then had her first work, four furlongs in 47 seconds, on Feb. 22.

De Seroux said some of her drills have been "frightening" for their speed and strength. "She's fit," she said. "She's certainly [worked] in a style that gives me a lot of confidence as to how fit she is."

The Apple Blossom will share a card with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, which is expected to draw Medaglia d'Oro, defending champ Kudos, and locals Colorful Tour and Crafty Shaw.

Slider is under serious consideration for the race, said trainer Joe Woodard.

Shadow roll on Mandy's Gold

Mandy's Gold, the Grade 1 Ruffian winner who has been training at Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom, will make a slight equipment change for the race. "We'll put a small shadow roll on her," said Mike Gorham, who trains Mandy's Gold for Steeplechase Farm. "Hopefully, she won't be jumping the shadow like she did last time."

Mandy's Gold was setting the pace as the 2-5 favorite in the Grade 3, $200,000 Oaklawn Breeders' Cup on March 15 when she took a funny step at about the three-eighths pole. Gorham later explained she had jumped a shadow, and felt it cost her the race, in which she finished third, beaten two lengths by Bien Nicole.

He has left her at Oaklawn to train, and since she has done well here, the plan is to run her in the Apple Blossom.

"I think being there is a big bonus," said Gorham. "Last time, she had just trained a few days on the track."

Mandy's Gold vanned from Gulfstream Park on the Tuesday before the Oaklawn BC. Rene Douglas, who rode her in that race, has the return call for the Apple Blossom.

Options for Bien Nicole

Trainer Donnie Von Hemel is keeping all of his options open for Bien Nicole, a four-time stakes winner on turf last year who won on dirt for the first time since September 2001 in the Oaklawn BC.

In addition to the Apple Blossom, he is looking at the $50,000 Bayakoa on dirt at Oaklawn on April 6 and the $75,000 Irving Distaff on turf at Lone Star Park on April 12.

"I think in the right spots, she can run on the dirt," said Von Hemel. "She still has a stronger turf record, but we wouldn't hesitate to go either way."

Hot jock on Impetuous Molly

Jamie Theriot, who won five races Thursday to gain a one-win lead in the standings over neck-and-neck rival Terry Thompson, has the mount on favorite Impetuous Molly in the $50,000 Rainbow Miss, the Sunday feature at Oaklawn.

The six-furlong race drew nine and is restricted to 3-year-old fillies bred in Arkansas.

Impetuous Molly returns to racing against statebreds after finishing second last out to the stakes-bound Youcan'ttakeme in an allowance earlier this month. The race was her first since November, when she won the $25,000 Lady Razorback Futurity by 10 1/4 lengths at Louisiana Downs.

Leading trainer Cole Norman trains Impetuous Molly for Roy Sanders.