08/08/2002 11:00PM

Azeri looking a bit like Bayakoa


DEL MAR, Calif. - Azeri was dragging her trainer around the Del Mar walking ring Thursday morning, getting her first look at the amphitheater paddock, when an innocent bystander put 2 and 2 together and wondered out loud: "Is that Dublino?"

An honest mistake. The stable of Laura de Seroux is based at the San Luis Rey Downs training center, some 40 miles northeast of Del Mar. Right now, her shed row looks like the cast from "Xena: Warrior Princess," without the surgical enhancements.

Azeri, Astra, Dublino, and Little Treasure make up the most potent cast in the current world of filly and mare racing. Dublino, who won then lost the American Oaks to the stewards, and San Clemente Stakes winner Little Treasure were purchased in Europe. They could both try the Del Mar Oaks, or divide and conquer other worlds. Astra, already an established power, was inherited a year ago from the care of Simon Bray. She has won three of four for de Seroux and runs next in the Beverly D.

Azeri came from Bray as well, but at this time last year she had yet to run a race. She was a shy violet, slim and unassuming, and earmarked for sale in the process of tidying up the horses of the Allen Paulson estate.

When Azeri was pulled from the Keeneland catalog, it was the stable's best move since Bill Mott took Cigar off the grass.

Now Azeri is on a roll - four big races and counting - since her second-place finish to Summer Colony in the La Canada Stakes last February. Azeri enters the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar on Sunday at the top of her game, and de Seroux says she has never been better, which is awfully bad news for the rest of the field.

Azeri's physical development has been a treat to behold. The wispy 3-year-old with the muted caramel coat is a bit taller and a little heavier than she was in January, but the change is more conceptual. It was as if Azeri needed to reach a certain maturity date before her muscle mass could fully accommodate a conformational structure that defies serious criticism.

De Seroux requires no prompting to wax poetic.

"She has incredible length from the hip to the hock, and a beautiful angle to her shoulder," the trainer said. "The combination gives her a stride you'd expect from a much larger mare.

"We've never had any trouble with her feet," de Seroux went on. "Her legs have been clean, and she's never even stood in ice. On top of all that, she's about the sweetest filly imaginable. Want a back rub?"

With that, de Seroux instructed her visitor to face away from Azeri's stall webbing. Azeri came forward and began wiggling her upper lip against an unsuspecting cotton windbreaker, pushing hard enough to relieve the stress of a bad night's sleep. After a few minutes of deep tissue massage, de Seroux said it was time to gallop. Both Azeri and her visitor were clearly disappointed.

Thanks to her experience working for Charlie Whittingham, de Seroux has been around her share of grand fillies and mares - from the cantankerous Swingtime, to the brave Fitzwilliam Place, to Estrapade, the mare who made a shambles of the 1986 Arlington Million. Azeri is already in their league.

She will need to be on Sunday. In the Hirsch, Azeri must carry 126 pounds and give away chunks of weight over a track she has never tried. On paper, Azeri is a sure thing, but no one ever says that around the racetrack with a straight face.

Manistique appeared to have this same race over a barrel in 1999 but lost to A Lady From Dixie. Lakeway was stung by Borodislew in 1995, and Vieille Vigne surprised Lite Light in 1991. De Seroux takes nothing for granted.

"I'm glad I brought her over an extra day early," the trainer said as Azeri danced off the track from her Thursday gallop. "She can be a little curious."

For the most part, the Hirsch has been a midsummer showcase for many of the West's best main track mares - Sangue, Princess Rooney, Goodbye Halo, Paseana, Sharp Cat, and Riboletta all won the race when it was called the Chula Vista.

Trevor Denman has been calling the races at Del Mar since 1984. The best mare he has seen in action by the sea has been Bayakoa, the two-time champion who won the 1990 Chula Vista under 127 pounds, while holding off the 113-pound lightweight Fantastic Look by a nose.

"To start calling her the next Bayakoa might be a little overexuberant," Denman said. "You don't want to jump too soon. How often do we end up egg on our face?

"But really, to begin to talk about her in the same breath as Bayakoa is not way out of line," he added. "To be able to see a mare like Azeri perform is absolutely one of the things that keeps you going."