07/29/2003 11:00PM

All systems go for Azeri in Hirsch

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Azeri, the reigning Horse of the Year, has been confirmed as on schedule for the $300,000 Clement Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 10, where she will try for her 11th consecutive win.

Owner Michael Paulson and trainer Laura de Seroux had considered two races against males - Saturday's Whitney Handicap at Saratoga and Sunday's $250,000 San Diego Handicap - but opted to stay within the filly and mare division.

"As Mike said, it's the unknown of the weather and the travel," de Seroux said of the Whitney. "We're not afraid of the competition."

The decision all but eliminates a start against males in coming months before Azeri attempts to defend her title in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita on Oct. 25. One race likely to be considered in between the Clement Hirsch and the BC Distaff is the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sept. 28, a race Azeri won last year.

Azeri is trying to become the first two-time winner of the Clement Hirsch Handicap since Bahia Key repeated in 1974-75, when the race was known as the Chula Vista Handicap. Run over 1 1/16 miles on dirt, the Hirsch is the top dirt race of the meeting for fillies and mares. The Hirsch will draw Got Koko, the winner of the La Canada Series at Santa Anita earlier this year.

Azeri, 5, will work five furlongs at San Luis Rey Downs on Monday and will ship to Del Mar on Aug. 7, de Seroux said. She proclaimed Azeri fit and ready.

"We've been elated at the way she's been," she said. "She's on the same pattern. She lets down after a race and knows when we're gearing her up."

Sarava's condition improves

Sarava, the 2002 Belmont Stakes winner who finished sixth in an allowance race last Saturday, has shown progress in recent days following emergency surgery for a twisted colon early Sunday morning.

Trainer Bob Baffert said that Sarava is not "out of the woods yet," and that he will need a lengthy period of recovery. He is expected to resume racing next year.

Baffert said that veterinarians at San Luis Rey Equine Clinic in Bonsall, Calif. said that Sarava was to be fed solid food on Wednesday for the first time since the surgery.

"They took him off all the IV's," Baffert said. "His feet are cold and his blood work looked good.

"It looks like he can come back next year. This year is gone. They were sounding pretty good. Hopefully, he'll be all right."

A winner of 3 of 10 starts and $696,851, Sarava has been with Baffert since last winter, having previously been trained by Kenneth McPeek. Saturday's allowance race was his first start since the Belmont.

Canani mulls options for Special Ring

Trainer Julio Canani and Prestonwood Farm face a pleasant quandary with Special Ring, the winner of the Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap in course-record-time last Sunday. They are debating which stakes to use as preps for the $1 million Breeders' Cup Mile on Oct. 25.

Special Ring won the Read by a smashing five lengths, running 1 1/8 miles on turf in 1:45.87. The previous record of 1:46.60 was set by Al Mamoon in the 1986 Eddie Read.

Canani is considering the $1 million Atto Mile at Woodbine on Sept. 14 or the $300,000 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita on Oct. 5.

He is attracted to the prize money of the Woodbine race and the locality of the Oak Tree race. At the same time, Canani is concerned about the 20-day turnaround from the Oak Tree Mile to the Breeders' Cup Mile.

"It will be 20 days, but I don't have to go anywhere," he said. "We'll play those two options by ear."

Canani has won the Breeders' Cup Mile twice - with Silic (1999) and Val Royal (2001). In both cases, the horses prepped for the Breeders' Cup with victories in the Oak Tree Mile.

The Read was Special Ring's most prestigious win during a career that includes 8 wins in 23 starts and earnings of $657,021. He was offered for claiming prices of $95,000 and $100,000 in early 2002, but there were no takers.

Sunday's race was Special Ring's first stakes win since the 2002 Wickerr Handicap at Del Mar. Earlier this year, at Hollywood Park, he finished second to Redattore in the Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile and second to the undefeated Candy Ride in the American Handicap.

"He was better than when I ran him with Candy Ride," Canani said. "He's like a tiger. Now, I don't know what got into him. It's like he didn't run.

"The thing with those horses is I can go to the lead and sit behind. He's getting a little mellow."

Redattore finished last of six as the favorite in the Read. Trainer Richard Mandella blamed himself for the loss.

"Maybe I was too easy on him," Mandella said. "I might have to chalk it up to bad training. He got a little fat on me."

Joey Franco tops San Diego probables

Sunday's top race is the $250,000 San Diego Handicap, a prep to the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 24.

Run over 1 1/16 miles, the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap is led by Joey Franco, a winner of three stakes during the Hollywood meeting. Other hopefuls are Bayou the Moon, Danthebluegrassman, Daunting, Gondolieri, Kela, Legendary Weave, Publication, Reba's Gold, and Western Pride.

While Joey Franco is the likely favorite, there will be ample support for Danthebluegrassman, the winner of an optional claimer at Churchill Downs on June 28, and Reba's Gold, who was third in the Californian Stakes at Hollywood on June 14.

* Outta Here, who finished in a dead heat for third in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood on July 13, is bound for the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park on Aug. 9. Outta Here worked five furlongs in 58.40 seconds on Tuesday. Kent Desormeaux is booked to ride Outta Here in the West Virginia Derby, trainer Bill Currin said.