01/27/2004 12:00AM

Azeri had just enough for a repeat

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They never did meet on the track, but if they had, a race between Azeri and Sightseek might well have been as close as the one they had in the Eclipse Award voting for the top older filly or mare of 2003.

In one of the tightest votes of the year, was named a narrow winner at the Eclipse dinner Monday night after getting 123 first-place votes to Sightseek's 107. Another 17 votes were scattered among four other horses.

The filly-mare Eclipse was the second in a row for Azeri, the popular chestnut mare who was awarded the ultimate 2002 Eclipse when voted Horse of the Year. Although her 2003 season was not nearly as spectacular as 2002, Eclipse voters decided that Azeri had accomplished enough. She won four of five races before being forced to miss the Breeders' Cup Distaff because of a tendon injury that was diagnosed after an 11-race winning streak was snapped in a decidedly subpar performance in the Sept. 28 Lady's Secret BC Handicap at Santa Anita.

Azeri, trained by Laura de Seroux and regularly ridden by Mike Smith, started her 2003 campaign in April with a narrow victory over Take Charge Lady in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn. She followed that with wins in the Grade 1 Milady Breeders' Cup, the Grade 1 Vanity, and the Grade 2 Clement Hirsch, all on her home circuit of Southern California. Her campaign was over after she ran third (although elevated to second by disqualification) as the 1-5 favorite in the Lady's Secret.

Azeri, by Jade Hunter out of Zodiac Miss, was never officially retired, and Michael Paulson surprised many people when he announced in late December that Azeri was being turned over to D. Wayne Lukas for a possible 6-year-old campaign. Lukas has been training Azeri at Santa Anita for about four weeks.

Azeri was bred by Allen Paulson and is owned by the Allen Paulson Living Trust. Michael Paulson, who manages the trust for his late father's estate, said to the Eclipse crowd in a brief speech: "Two years in a row - that's fabulous. Azeri would have been here tonight, but D. Wayne Lukas wouldn't give her a hall pass." Paulson did not acknowledge de Seroux.

Azeri's record was just enough to beat out Sightseek, whose four wins from eight starts all came in Grade 1 races: the Humana Distaff, Ogden Phipps, Go for Wand, and Beldame. But in her last start of the year, the BC Distaff, Sightseek finished fourth by 10 1/2 lengths as the 3-5 favorite, an outcome that apparently swung the Eclipse into Azeri's favor.