05/28/2004 11:00PM

Azeri, Funny Cide meet in deep Met

Jack Coady/Coady Photography
Azeri, winning the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn in April, will face males for the first time in the Met Mile. Pat Day replaces Mike Smith as rider.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Before Smarty Jones, Azeri and Funny Cide were the most popular horses of the last several years. Monday, five days before Smarty Jones goes for the Triple Crown, Azeri and Funny Cide meet in a sterling 111th renewal of the Grade 1, $750,000 at Belmont Park.

For Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year and two-time champion older mare, the Met marks her first time facing males. For Funny Cide, the Met is his first start at Belmont Park since Empire Maker foiled his Triple Crown bid in last year's Belmont Stakes.

While Azeri and Funny Cide provide star quality, the other seven horses entered make this year's Met the deepest in recent memory. Pico Central and Strong Hope - the one-two finishers in the second-fastest Carter Handicap ever run - are in the field, along with Grade 1 winner Gygistar and stakes winners Bowman's Band, Eye of the Tiger, Saarland, and Mobil.

Azeri, who has 15 wins and 3 seconds from 18 starts, arrived in New York from Kentucky on Saturday afternoon. Her trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, and owner, Michael Paulson, have targeted this race for months. In addition to possibly becoming just the second female to win the Met Mile, Azeri could become North America's all-time leading female money-earner with a first- or second-place finish.

"She's extraordinary, and she's done extraordinary things already," Lukas said. "After talking to Michael, we thought we'd step out of the box and try to do something extraordinary. We wouldn't do this if we didn't think we had a legitimate shot. She's one of the really special ones to come along. When they are special, you can take a shot like this."

Lukas has had success racing fillies against colts. He won the Kentucky Derby with Winning Colors, the Whitney with Lady's Secret, and the Haskell with Serena's Song.

Lukas has selected Pat Day to replace Mike Smith. Lukas believes Day will be a perfect fit for Azeri and hopes Day can give her a "sit-still type of ride" from post 3.

Funny Cide, last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, may be no better than fourth choice in the Met Mile. While he is 3 for 3 at Belmont and 4 for 4 in one-turn races, he must show that he can again be competitive in Grade 1 company. Funny Cide breaks from the outside post in the nine-horse field, which should enable jockey Jose Santos to work out a stalking trip.

"Those horses are probably going to have more speed than him, but I don't think we're going to be too far back, either," Santos said. "He's got beautiful natural speed, and I'm pretty sure [trainer] Barclay Tagg put a little more speed into him for this race."

Trainer Todd Pletcher began pointing Strong Hope to the Met Mile after Pletcher and owner Eugene Melnyk opted to stop on him following a third-place finish in last summer's Travers. After winning an allowance race and running a strong second in the Carter, Strong Hope may be ready for a career-best effort in his third start off a layoff. Pletcher has been working with Strong Hope to get him to relax.

"We let him go off behind a horse, which he does very kindly," Pletcher said. "He's got a lot of natural speed; he's not going to be too far off the pace. He'll let you do what you want with him."

While Strong Hope ran very well in the Carter, Pletcher said, "Pico Central ran a touch better. With that race under our belt and this being his third race back, we'll be a little better."

Pico Central, who began his career in his native Brazil, is 3 for 3 since coming to this country. Though all three races have been at seven furlongs or less, he won a Group 1 mile on turf in Brazil.

"I think he's going to handle it very well," trainer Paulo Lobo said. "His best race in Brazil was at a mile."

Gygistar comes off a solid win in the Westchester. Saarland has run his best in one-mile races at Belmont, including last year's Met Mile, in which he was beaten a neck.