08/09/2003 11:00PM

Azeri cruises in Clement Hirsch Handicap


DEL MAR, Calif. - Forget "Seabiscuit." Azeri is the feel-good story of the summer. She won her 11th consecutive race, delighted an on-track crowd of 20,613, took care of the plungers who dived head first into the place pool, gave jockey Mike Smith a welcome birthday present, and brought trainer Laura de Seroux to tears of joy, all by winning Sunday's Grade 2, $300,000 Clement Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar.

In another flawless performance, Azeri won by 3 1/2 lengths over Got Koko, who finished a head in front of Tropical Blossom. She carried top weight of 127 pounds, equaling the highest impost of her career, and gave her rivals anywhere from nine to 18 pounds. The 2002 Horse of the Year has now won 14 times in 15 starts. She is owned by the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust, which is headed by the late Paulson's son, Michael.

Azeri performed with the precision of a metronome. Breaking from post 1 under Smith, she quickly darted to the front, then clicked off fractions of 23.34 seconds, :47.09, 1:11.04 and 1:35.65 en route to a final time of 1:42.12 for 1 1/16 miles on the fast main track.

Sister Girl Blues tried to run with her early, and Got Koko made a run at her heading into the far turn, but Azeri turned back all challenges with a haughty turn of foot.

"They tried to take it to her early, but she sped away from them," de Seroux said. "Once they do that, they can't do it more than once. Not mere mortals."

The vanquished were similarly impressed. "When Azeri retires, we'll be all right," said Gus Headley, the assistant trainer to his father, Bruce, who trains Got Koko.

Azeri was the heavy favorite. She paid $2.60 to win, but caused a minus place pool of $96,380. Of the $682,857.60 bet to place on the race, some $608,417.20 was bet on Azeri.

Azeri received a warm ovation when leaving the paddock heading to the track, and a crescendo of cheers followed her down the stretch as she approached the finish line, with the result not in doubt.

Smith, who turned 36 on Sunday, won three races on the card, and finished a week that began with his being inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

"She's amazing," Smith said of Azeri. "As soon as she got a whiff of another horse, she jumped back into the bridle. She was cruising. I didn't begin to hit all her gears."