08/10/2003 11:00PM

Azeri leaves her observers in awe

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DEL MAR, Calif. - By the eighth pole of the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap on Sunday at Del Mar, Azeri had pretty much finished the job. Mike Smith glanced over his right shoulder, just in case, but all he saw was Alex Solis and Julie Krone going tooth and nail for second money with Got Koko and Tropical Blossom.

Smith enjoyed the momentary diversion, then refocused on the finish, which came and went at basically an open gallop for Azeri, the reigning Horse of the Year. Smith's hands were low. There was a big birthday smile on his face. Then suddenly, up on the outside, Tropical Blossom appeared, galloping out past the wire with the class of a filly who didn't really enjoy getting stuffed.

"Uh-oh," Smith said. "Here she goes."

With that, Azeri grabbed the bit and pinned her ears. Her eyes rolled back, looking for the perceived challenge. There was none, of course. Tropical Blossom just wanted to unwind and go home. But for Azeri, the ultimate alpha-female, it was off to the races again.

"It was a very exotic sight," Krone said. "Mike tried to grab her, then he just went ahead and let her go. The last thing I saw was them heading off to the half-mile pole, with Mike yelling, 'Look at Azeri!' "

What a great view it was - from all angles. Azeri's trainer, Laura de Seroux, has just about run out of well-chosen words to describe her mare. On Sunday, de Seroux was content with, "Oh, wow," uttered with a reverence usually reserved for the Grand Canyon, or a great wine.

Eddie Delahoussaye, part owner of fourth-place finisher Angel Gift, watched the Hirsch from a clubhouse box. Afterward, he shook his head in wonder.

"I guess about the only way to beat her is lock the stall door," Delahoussaye said.

Down around the clubhouse turn, after the race was run, Scott Craigmyle had a front-row seat from atop Ace, his 9-year-old Quarter Horse. As one of the Del Mar outriders, it is Craigmyle's job to shadow the winning horse and supply any assistance that the jockey may require during the process of pulling up and returning to the stands. Craigmyle says he can see the good ones coming - big horses with strides to match, a test for any capable pony. Azeri, Craigmyle noted, presents an unusual challenge.

"She's kind of an optical illusion," he said. "She doesn't look that big, but there she is taking those big, long strides. The next thing you know, she's right on top of you. So when you're galloping beside her with a pony, you've really got to gear up, because she looks like she's going so slow. Believe me, she's not."

Azeri returned to the stands and was immediately surrounded by joyous handlers. Smith grabbed a sponge of cool water and squeezed it between Azeri's ears. Then Mike Paulson took the shank and led his mare into the winner's circle for the 11th straight time, a string that runs back to the 2002 Santa Margarita Handicap, 17 months ago.

Paulson is the head of trust bearing the name of his late father, Allen Paulson. He has immersed himself in the career of Azeri like a kid who has just discovered chocolate ice cream.

"My wife thinks I'm a little crazy, staying up until one, two o'clock in the morning, studying all the great horses of the past," Paulson said. "I realize we've got one of them now. But I like to see what the others did, what mistakes they might have made, and how we can avoid them. History is the greatest teacher."

As a student of history, Paulson could not avoid the fact that Sunday marked the seventh anniversary, to the very day, that Cigar was defeated in the Pacific Classic while trying to win his 17th straight race. Cigar was owned by Allen Paulson.

"There were so many similarities," Paulson said. "When she comes to Del Mar, Azeri is in the same barn Cigar was in. I remember going out to see Cigar before the race, and standing at the stall with my dad, giving Cigar a nice rub. I could tell my dad was nervous, because he was very quiet. The same thing happens to me.

"In the paddock on Sunday, even with all the people crowding around and hanging from the balconies, you could almost hear a pin drop," Paulson went on. "It was like that with Cigar, too. As it turned out, that wasn't one of my dad's better days, but he handled the loss very well. He was the kind of man who took adversity well, and never looked back."

Right now Paulson is looking forward, to the Oak Tree meet and one more race for Azeri before she defends her title in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park Oct. 25. After that, it will be up to Azeri.

"She's a 5-year-old, but she's only up to 15 races," Paulson said. "And she loves to run. It's never a chore for her to go out on that track. You can see she relishes every minute of it. So if we get through the Breeders' Cup with the streak still alive, we'll surely consider running her next year."