04/04/2004 11:00PM

Azeri blooms for Lukas


NEW YORK - It may not be on the order of what trainer Tom Smith did for Seabiscuit or what Seabiscuit did for Tom Smith. But after Saturday's Apple Blossom Handicap was run at Oaklawn Park, it was obvious that trainer D. Wayne Lukas had done right by Azeri, who is now a middle-aged 6, and that Azeri had done the same for Lukas.

The Lukas touch that enabled Lady's Secret, Winning Colors, and Serena's Song, to name just a few, to be such outstanding champions has also rubbed off on Azeri. Azeri demonstrated that by winning the Apple Blossom for a third consecutive year in impressive fashion. In the process, Azeri instantly changed the tenor of a season for Lukas that had been so awful - he had only five winners from his first 105 starters in 2004, probably the worst period he had experienced since turning full-time to Thoroughbred racing 26 years ago.

Like Winning Colors, Serena's Song, and especially Lady's Secret, who always tormented her opposition by letting them know they would be damned if they ran with her early, and damned if they didn't, Azeri played a big speed game Saturday. She was gunned right to the front, taking the track from expected pacesetter Star Parade. She must have taken Star Parade by surprise with her determination to secure the front end, because the fractions really weren't that fast. Still, when highly talented Wild Spirit posed a threat with an inside-out move into second in upper stretch, Azeri was able to immediately neutralize the challenge. So much so, in fact, that when Azeri hit the wire 1 1/2 lengths in front of Wild Spirit, it looked like they could have gone around a couple of more times and the outcome would have been the same.

For now, let's not talk about that the Apple Blossom pace was very moderate, and thus very much in Azeri's favor. Let's not talk about how Island Fashion regressed badly in the Apple Blossom off her draining second to males in the Santa Anita Handicap and didn't run a fraction of how she is capable. And, let's not speculate what may happen if Azeri comes to the deeper-surfaced tracks of New York, tracks over which Wild Spirit has already proven successful. For now, let's just say the reigning older female champion is back and in fine form, and that makes a vast majority of the racing public very happy.

Castledale's win at $62 no fluke

The nature of the 3-year-old division is now bordering on the ridiculous, and not just because Castledale upset Saturday's Santa Anita Derby at 30-1. Castledale, after all, had run only one really bad race in his life, although that came in the San Rafael in his last start, which was his first attempt on dirt. But Castledale had certainly worked well enough on dirt, and if a high-percentage trainer like Jeff Mullins thought he deserved another shot on dirt, then you can't classify Castledale's Santa Anita Derby as an out-and-out fluke.

The distressing part of the Santa Anita Derby was the total non-performances by Wimbledon and St Averil, who were considered such prominent contenders for the Kentucky Derby that they were first and second in the betting Saturday.

One other note about the Santa Anita Derby: Third-place finisher Imperialism was certainly fouled, and runner-up Rock Hard Ten was the culprit. But at the time of the infraction, I don't think Imperialism was finishing as strongly as Castledale and Rock Hard Ten were, and I think he was going to finish third anyway.

Funny Cide's redemption

Saturday was a big day for the handicap division, and these days are important because Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro aren't going to be seen for a long time after their trips to Dubai. And with the way they both laid it down in the desert, it's fair to wonder if they haven't left a permanent void in the handicap division. Plus, who knows what we'll get from Candy Ride?

As was the case with Azeri, Saturday was redemption day for Funny Cide, last year's champion 3-year-old, who notched his first stakes victory in nearly 11 months in Aqueduct's Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap. Funny Cide held off Evening Attire, who, while not the horse he was when he won the 2002 Jockey Club Gold Cup, was running at a track and over the type of wet surface he has always fancied.

Peace Rules, who is not quite in the same league as Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro, but who has established himself as superior to Funny Cide, ran another very game race winning the Oaklawn Handicap. He disputed a pace that was substantially faster than the one Azeri set two races earlier in the Apple Blossom, and still found a way to draw away and win decisively.

However, the race Saturday that may have the most impact on the handicap division was one that otherwise would have been an inconspicuous Grade 3 on the Santa Anita Derby undercard, the San Bernardino Handicap, were it not for the powerful comeback by Dynever. Dynever showed flashes of truly exciting ability last year at 3, and concluded his 2003 campaign with a third in the Breeders' Cup Classic, beaten less than a length for second by Medaglia d'Oro and only a little more than two lengths for it all by Pleasantly Perfect. Dynever crushed his San Bernardino opposition, scoring by a widening 4 1/2 lengths in time strong enough for a 113 Beyer Speed Figure. The 5 1/2-month layoff Dynever brought into the race and the fact he won throttled down suggest Dynever will improve on that Beyer, perhaps substantially, which would put him right up with the top of his class.