09/25/2003 11:00PM

Azeri headliner of star-filled day


ARCADIA, Calif. - As first impressions go, this is as good as it gets.

Santa Anita's Oak Tree Racing Association, which will play host to the 20th Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships on Oct. 25, opens its 32-day meeting on Sunday with four graded stakes races that feature the current favorites for three Breeders' Cup races, including the First Lady of California racing, 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri.

Azeri will seek her 12th consecutive victory in the Grade 2, $300,000 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap, the same race she used as a prep before capturing last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff. It is the sixth race on a 10-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m. Pacific.

Also on Sunday's card are scheduled performances by Halfbridled, the nation's leading 2-year-old filly, in the Grade 2, $250,000 Oak Leaf Stakes, and Storming Home, the nation's best long-distance turf horse, in the Grade 1, $250,000 Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship. This will be Storming Home's first start since his bizarre side step at last month's Arlington Million cost him that race, and nearly cost jockey Gary Stevens his life.

The day's richest race, the Grade 1, $500,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes, features a top Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf prospect in Tates Creek, who, like Azeri, Halfbridled, and Storming Home, figures to be a short price.

The Lady's Secret and Yellow Ribbon will be shown live, and the Hirsch on tape, during a one-hour ESPN telecast that begins at 3 p.m. Pacific.

There is a $400,000 guarantee on the pick four on races 7 through 10, and a poster will be given away that includes Seabiscuit's lifetime past performances.

Oak Tree - a nonprofit organization run by prominent California owners - has presented a fall racing meeting at Santa Anita since 1969. This will mark the third time that Oak Tree has played host to the Breeders' Cup. In order to accommodate California-based horses seeking berths in the Breeders' Cup, the meet has been front-loaded with Breeders' Cup preps, with four stakes Sunday, and four more next weekend.

And while the Breeders' Cup is unquestionably the focal point of the season, there are other highlights, including the 14th California Cup on Nov. 8, with 10 races for Cal-breds worth $1.35 million.

The purse of the Lady's Secret was increased $100,000 by Oak Tree in order to assure both Azeri's participation and more than cursory competition. It worked on both accounts. There was little chance Azeri was going to leave her Southern California base for a final prep, but Oak Tree's gesture made certain she stayed put. And the extra prize money helped lure five challengers, including such accomplished stakes winners as Elloluv and Got Koko.

Azeri has won 14 times in 15 starts, and appears to be heading into this race in peak condition. The 5-year-old Azeri never has been imposing, but she has added muscle to her hindquarters since a year ago and cut a powerful figure while training at Santa Anita on Friday morning.

"She continues to mature and strengthen," said Azeri's trainer, Laura de Seroux. "She kind of looks like Popeye. You know how weightlifters get a body that's disproportionate to their head? That's how she looks. She's scary-good right now."

The Lady's Secret does not figure to be as easy a race for Azeri as her last few starts. Elloluv, the Ashland Stakes winner, offers a worthy pace challenger to Azeri. Got Koko ran well at this track during the winter, when she swept the three-race La Canada Series.

Both get significant weight breaks from Azeri, who carries the highest impost of her career, 128 pounds. Elloluv, a 3-year-old, gets in with just 114 pounds.

"I like the weights, and the filly's doing great," said Craig Dollase, who trains Elloluv. "She breezed real nice the other day." Elloluv has not raced since finishing fourth in the Kentucky Oaks.

Got Koko finished second, 3 1/4 lengths behind Azeri, in Del Mar's Clement Hirsch Handicap on Aug. 10. That was Got Koko's first start in five months, so she has a right to improve, especially over a track on which she is 4 for 6. She carries 10 pounds fewer than Azeri.

The biggest weight break goes to Tropical Blossom, who was third in Del Mar's Hirsch last time out. Her 108-pound assignment is 20 fewer than Azeri. Julio Canani, who trains Tropical Blossom, thinks his mare needs every bit of it.

"This is Fantasy Island," Canani said of trying to beat Azeri.