09/22/2004 11:00PM

Azeri deserves better than Classic

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NEW YORK - With just 35 days until the Breeders' Cup, storylines and potential showdowns are starting to take shape. It may be too early to know who you like, but it's not too soon to argue with two premises that already have emerged in anticipation of the day: First, that Azeri is a realistic candidate for the Classic instead of the Distaff, and second, that there are no good 2-year-olds east of the Rockies this year.

Running Azeri in the Classic would be a doomed venture, and I say that as both a fervent if belated Azeri fan and as someone who has no problem with the sometimes controversial way she has been campaigned this year. Trying her in a sprint in the Humana Distaff and sending her against males in the Met Mile were interesting experiments that obviously did her no harm. Stretching her out to 1 1/4 miles in the Personal Ensign proved unsuccessful, but she was magnificent in defeat.

The time for such experiments, however, has passed. Azeri will almost surely be making her final career start on Breeders' Cup Day, and she deserves better than finishing off the board in her swan song, which is likely to happen if she tries the Classic.

It is no knock on Azeri to say that on her best day, she is simply not competitive with Pleasantly Perfect and Ghostzapper, perhaps not with Roses in May and Perfect Drift either. Just as important as the competition, however, is the distance. The Classic is 1 1/4 miles, and it is impossible to imagine a scenario where Azeri can succeed at that distance against a top group of older males.

Michael Paulson, her adoring owner, has been unfairly criticized in the past for bringing her back at all this year, which clearly was a proper and sporting move. He is surely tempted to be contrary once again. Azeri, however, needs no quixotic stunts to secure her place in history or enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. She instead deserves an opportunity for a career-ending triumph on Breeders' Cup Day, and the only realistic chance for that is to run her in the Distaff. A rubber match with Sightseek at level weights is drama enough and is the race everyone wants to see.

As for the 2-year-olds, it is understandable that last weekend's stakes races led some to believe that any 2-year-old not named Declan's Moon or Roman Ruler is running a bad third for Juvenile or Eclipse Award consideration this year. The Futurity at Belmont was 1.17 seconds slower than the Matron for fillies on the same card, the Arlington-Washington Futurity was 1.58 seconds slower than that day's Lassie, and the Kentucky Cup Juvenile was entirely forgettable. Before jumping to conclusions, however, consider that there are at least five Eastern 2-year-olds who are at least five lengths faster than any colt who ran in a stakes last weekend.

That group is led, of course, by Afleet Alex, the undefeated winner of the Sanford and Hopeful. Then there are Proud Accolade and Galloping Grocer, very fast debut winners at Saratoga (respective Beyer Speed Figures of 94 and 95), who both came back and showed stretch-out potential rating sensibly while posting lopsided first-level allowance scores. Both are being pointed to the Champagne, along with Afleet Alex.

Then there is the maiden race at Belmont Sept. 17, two days before the Futurity, when two colts ran so well that either might have won the Futurity by daylight. Sun King and Patriot Act finished a half-length apart and nearly 11 lengths clear of an experienced group of decent maidens, running a mile in 1:37.66 over a very dull track (the day's two other mile races, went in 1:39.19 and 1:41.53.) The race earned a Beyer of 94, the highest this year in a 2-year-old race at over seven furlongs, which looks even better considering that both colts were making just their second career starts while stretching out to a mile.

Sun King, a $400,000 Charismatic colt trained by Nick Zito, could return in the Champagne, while Patriot Act, a Will Farish homebred by A.P. Indy, will be 1-5 if he makes his next start in a maiden race and very competitive if he tries a stakes as a maiden.

Declan's Moon and Roman Ruler were brilliant in the Del Mar Futurity and are unusually fast at this point in their careers, but the Juvenile picture this year could be a lot more interesting than a two-horse race.