08/10/2003 11:00PM

Azeri needs new competition


NEW YORK - Notes from a busy summer weekend:

It was impressive. Then again, Azeri's victory in Sunday's Clement Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar, over three opponents she had previously humbled and the comebacking Got Koko, and under a weight assignment - if such things matter - that can be kindly described as favorable, was supposed to be impressive. Nevertheless, Azeri looked really good winning her 11th straight, an achievement under any circumstance.

On the other hand, there is a repetitious nature to Azeri's campaign that is starting to wear thin. The races she has won this year - the Apple Blossom, the Milady, the Vanity, and now the Clement Hirsch - are the same races that Azeri won last year. There is a been-there, done-that feel to what she is doing, meaning what she is doing isn't as exciting as it could, or should be. She hasn't taken on males and won't take on other top females like Sightseek and Wild Spirit for the foreseeable future. I understand that she is based in Southern California with trainer Laura de Seroux and that with the Breeders' Cup this year at Santa Anita, there is no reason for her to travel. But, where is the spirit of adventure here? If nothing is truly ventured, what is really gained? If she continues on the same course, perhaps Azeri will stretch her win streak to 17, breaking the modern record shared by, among others, Citation and Cigar. But, will that streak stand up to scrutiny in the years ahead?

Frankly, I would rather see Azeri finish a game second or third to Mineshaft or Medaglia d'Oro than beat Sister Girl Blues again.

Whitmore's Conn shocks again

Whitmore's Conn is a cool horse. He's an overachieving New York-bred, much like Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide. And, when Whitmore's Conn's big finishing kick is successful, he really rewards his fans. When he won the Bowling Green at Belmont Park last month, he paid $25.60, which was only a little less than the $31.80 he paid when he won the 2002 Bowling Green.

On the other hand, what does Whitmore's Conn's victory (at $51.50, I might add) in a race like Saturday's Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga say about the turf division in the East? Going into the Sword Dancer, Whitmore's Conn had never earned a Beyer Speed Figure higher than 104. That puts him several lengths behind Storming Home, who through last Thursday had the best turf Beyer in the nation this year at 112. It also put him well behind The Tin Man, Redattore, and Special Ring, who had each reached 111 and who, like Storming Home, are all based in Southern California. Moreover, Whitmore's Conn not only comes in behind many others on turf, but also a Beyer analysis puts him behind dozens of dirt horses. In fact, there have been dozens of faster dirt performances this year than the one that earned Storming Home his 112.

That isn't a surprise. It's important to remember that almost all of the best turf horses developed in the United States are horses who were disappointments on dirt. In other words, the best of our turf horses are not nearly as good as the best of our dirt horses.

Anyway, Whitmore's Conn's win in the Sword Dancer means that the turf division in the East is below even the usual standards. It also means that any horse - any horse - who comes from Europe for the fall turf stakes in the East merits a very long look.

Soto has heart, too

Soto answered a lot of questions with his victory in Saturday's West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Race Track. Dynever ranged up to Soto at the top of the stretch like he was 1-9 to win it all. Whatever you think of Dynever - and to this point, the hype still outweighs what Dynever has accomplished - he can finish strongly. But despite having the tougher trip battling on the pace, Soto outfinished Dynever in a stirring display of heart and desire.

Trainer of the week to Dibona

Some may think the top trainer of the weekend should be either Laura de Seroux; Randy Schulhofer, the trainer of Whitmore's Conn; or Michael Dickinson, who handles Soto. But, my nominee is Suffolk Downs-based trainer Robert Dibona, who engineered a good old-fashioned put-over job winning a claiming race at Saratoga on Saturday with Tullynally.

Tullynally had won his only prior start at Suffolk, holding on over maiden special weight company to win by two lengths after squandering a big chunk of a seven-length lead in the middle stages. He was meeting multiple winners Saturday, but was hustled to the lead out of the gate, turned back a bid from War Paint down the backstretch, a bid from Fredericksburg into the far turn, a bid from Judge Harper into the stretch, and then still ran away from his field to score by just over four lengths.

On the basis of this performance, Tullynally was certainly worth a lot more than the $35,000 tag he ran for, yet his connections still got a $14.60 mutuel. Nice job, and the only thing that prevented it from being a perfect day for Dibona and company is that they got caught stealing, and lost their horse. Trainer Chuck Simon made an inspired claim reaching in for Tullynally, who probably won't have any trouble winning against richer company.