02/14/2002 12:00AM

Azeff's Valentine: 'Mom, I love you'


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Like her daughter Yvonne Azeff, Barbara Barnhill has been toughened from years on the racetrack and around horses, but it was not hard to catch the emotion in her voice Thursday, only hours after she had spoken with her daughter for the first time since Azeff suffered a serious head injury and lapsed into a coma after an accident at Gulfstream Park.

"She said, 'Mom, I love you.' I couldn't ask for a better Valentine's Day present," Barnhill said. "I knew she was going to make it, because she's tough. You're not going to be a racetracker by being a pantywaist."

Barnhill, an equine massage therapist, was about to get on Interstate 95, preparing for a 4 1/2-hour drive from her home in Ocala - where she has a six-acre farm - to south Florida. It is a trip Barnhill has made several times since Azeff was injured when a pony fell on her during training hours at Gulfstream on Jan. 26. But there was joyful urgency on this day. Azeff had a tracheal tube removed from her throat on Wednesday afternoon, and shortly thereafter spoke her first words since the accident. As a friend left her hospital room by saying "See you in the morning," Azeff replied, "Okay."

"She's been very responsive to everyone who's come in the room," Barnhill said. "I haven't seen her since last Friday. But she's able to sit there and talk and move her limbs. She can understand things. She's tough. She's always been a fighter."

Azeff, 40, was scheduled to be moved from a local hospital to a rehabilitation facility on Friday. Barnhill said she had narrowed the choice of facilities to two, one in Ft. Lauderdale, the other in Delray. Once there, Azeff will begin the next step in a recovery that has touched fans, racetrackers, and her co-workers in the stable of trainer John Ward Jr.

"All the support has been phenomenal," Barnhill said. "From fans, racing people, everybody. It's been an inspiration to the family, and I'm sure it will be to her when she gets to see everything that's been sent. The support has been overwhelming from the beginning. I do a lot of work at Frank Stronach's farm, Adena Springs. The people there - Mark Roberts, Danny Vella - have been wonderful. They've brought me to tears several times.

"My mother is 81. When I first went to work at the track, she told me to get a real job. Because of this, now she understands. I told her, 'Yes, mom, it's like a big family.' "

Azeff has been on the track all her adult life. She briefly rode as a jockey, but in more recent years has held high-level positions assisting trainers such as Randy Bradshaw and D. Wayne Lukas. She was hired two years ago by Ward, who made her his lead assistant, and Azeff became well known last spring as part of the team that guided Monarchos to victory in the Kentucky Derby.

Many of the members of that team - Ward, owner John Oxley, and hotwalker Teri Upton - work daily with Booklet, the best 3-year-old in the barn and a starter in Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream. Tammy Holtz, who was the groom for Monarchos, also still works for Ward, but she does not take care of Booklet.

The stable has had its sense of priorities clearly defined in recent weeks. The injury to Azeff made last month's retirement of Monarchos, which was a huge disappointment, seem trivial by comparison.

"Yvonne's injury was tragic," Oxley said. "We've just tried to be optimistic and pray for her recovery."

Like Oxley and Ward, Holtz and Upton have visited Azeff in the hospital. Holtz said she has had to offer sober reminders to racetrackers who believed Azeff would be out of the hospital the day of the accident.

"They thought she'd get out and come right back that afternoon," Holtz said.

Ward said the mood around the barn "has been pretty positive.

"I think being racetrackers, you get used to disappointment, and you know not to get your hopes too high," he said. "They're concerned about what the future will bring, but they go about their work in a professional manner."

Azeff's medical costs have been covered by the workmen's compensation insurance for which she was eligible by virtue of being a full-time employee of Ward's. In that aspect, she was extremely fortunate, Ward said.

"It is so important for horsemen and racetracks to make sure the people who are employed at their facility are covered by workmen's compensation, and it's not that way all across America," Ward said.

"In this state, she was covered through the trainer. It's part of the overhead," Ward added. "But it's not the same if you're freelancing. You might not have as much freedom if you're not freelancing, but you're secure about your coverage. A lot of tracks turn a blind eye to this. Carrying proper workmen's compensation is the reason one trainer can charge what he does, and another gets away with charging something else."

Azeff was onboard a pony, leading a colt back from the track after his morning exercise, when her pony began acting erratically. Witnesses said the pony darted across a horse path that runs adjacent to the track's backstretch, crashed into a chain-link fence that separates the stable area from the racetrack, and fell on Azeff.

The colt who was being led back to the barn is named Accord. On Saturday, in the 10th race at Gulfstream, he will make the first start of his career.