12/27/2002 1:00AM

Azeff's return to job 'a miracle'


MIAMI - Anybody searching for a Christmas miracle this year need only to walk into Barn 32 at Gulfstream Park and see Yvonne Azeff back working at her familiar post as assistant to trainer John Ward. She's back less than a year after suffering a head injury in a training-hours mishap that left her in a coma for nearly a month with bleak prospects for recovery.

"It's just an amazing scenario that she could be back at this spot for the beginning of the meeting," said Ward. "Her doctors back in Louisville said the same thing. Just for her to be walking without a cane or any support is incredible. The doctors thought that might never happen. It's truly a miracle of modern medicine, as well as [a tribute to] the will and determination of the human spirit."

Azeff was injured in January when she fell and struck her head after her pony became skittish while accompanying another horse back to the barn after a gallop. Azeff still struggles to get around the barn and her speech is slow. Azeff no longer rides a pony, but it's pretty much business as usual around the Ward shed row.

"Yvonne knows her limitations but just participating every day in the daily routine helps her to get better and better," said Ward, who along with his principal owner John Oxley, has helped Azeff on the road to recovery."

"It just feels so great to be back here," said Azeff. "It was the neatest feeling in the world when the horses first shipped in. Watching them come off the van and into the barn made all the therapy worthwhile. And I can't say enough for what John and Mr. Oxley have done for me. Between them I haven't wanted for anything since the accident."

Azeff continues to undergo therapy, part of which consists of exercises on horseback.

"I have my best walking days after doing the horse therapy," said Azeff. "I have to stop and think about everything physical that I do, which is hard for me because I used to be so physical around the barn, but as soon as I got on a horse the muscle memory just kicked in and my body went right into position."

Azeff was an integral part of the Ward team when Monarchos won the 2001 Kentucky Derby, and she said one of her main goals now that she's returned to work is getting back to the Derby.

"The first time I watched Sky Mesa train I told John that will be your Derby colt next year," Azeff said.

And now that Azeff has returned to work, he may just turn out to be her Derby colt, too.

Crafty Guy takes on Super Fuse

Trainer Mark Shuman has 60 horses stabled at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows this winter. His two best are Out of Fashion and Crafty Guy both of whom worked five furlongs in 59.60 seconds at Gulfstream on Friday in preparation for stakes during the opening weekend of the 2003 Gulfstream meet.

Crafty Guy will take on Super Fuse in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes on opening day, Jan. 3. Super Fuse suffered his only defeat in five career starts to Crafty Guy in Delaware Park's NATC Futurity.

Out of Fashion closed out his 2002 campaign finishing fourth in Aqueduct's Fall Highweight Handicap.

Shuman, a former assistant to trainers Howie Tesher and H. James Bond, is training privately for Mike Gill, who has claimed more than a dozen horses over the past two weeks at Calder.

Shuman will send out one of Gill's newest acquisitions, Fly Me Crazy, in Sunday's $40,000 Sober Jig Stakes although she figures to have her work cut out trying to catch likely favorite Forest Heiress.

Forest Heiress was a two-time graded stakes winner at 2. Her 3-year-old campaign this year got off on a sour note when she was upset as the 1-5 favorite in Gulfstream Park's Old Hat Stakes. She has made only three starts since the Old Hat but comes into the 6 1/2-furlong Sober Jig off her best effort of the year, a 6 1/4-length allowance victory at Churchill Downs on Nov. 27.

Along with Fly Me Crazy, the Sober Jig field includes Gentille Alouette, Starship Miss, Urbana Light, Rose Frances, and Prizes.