02/07/2002 12:00AM

Azeri: Nowhere to go but La Canada

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The La Canada Stakes was created 27 years ago to lure champion Chris Evert west from New York for a winter campaign at Santa Anita.

It worked, even though the Hall of Fame filly was required to carry 128 pounds, based upon her 1974 earnings of $551,063. Her trainer, Joe Trovato, was not coy.

"I'd rather carry the 128 than give back the half million," he said one morning as he watched Chris Evert gallop by.

She won the race and promptly set the La Canada bar at championship height. The 26 subsequent winners, with few exceptions, have measured up. They include Glorious Song, Lady's Secret, Goodbye Halo, Gorgeous, Exchange, Jewel Princess, Manistique, and Spain.

The winner on Saturday should fit well with such company. Affluent, Royally Chosen, and Summer Colony enter the race with handsome records, brimming with class and consistency. Affluent, winner of both the La Brea and El Encino Stakes at the meet, will be favored because she is simply the best 4-year-old filly in America. But she will need to prove it again.

The dark horse of the bunch - actually a modest chestnut - is the Jade Hunter filly Azeri, bred by the late Allen Paulson and owned by the trustees of his estate. Azeri has raced three times and won three times, yet she has never ventured forth in a stakes. This begs the question: Is her trainer, Laura de Seroux, shooting for the moon?

"Got any other suggestions?" de Seroux said Thursday morning from her stable at San Luis Rey Downs. "There's nowhere else to go. Do I go to Oaklawn, where it might snow? I wanted to go through the conditions first, so this was by design. And she's moved forward physically and mentally with every race."

As her trainer spoke, Azeri was nearby, dangling her lower lip, making that goofy "buh-buh-buh" noise that lip-danglers make. In terms of body language, this is good. Azeri does not have a nervous bone in her medium-sized frame. If she did, she wouldn't be getting on a van Friday morning to ship the 80 miles from San Luis Rey to Santa Anita and face such a formidable field.

"She thinks everything is fine," de Seroux said. "I've got my heart in my throat."

Azeri's name was inspired by Paulson's mid-1990's foray into Central Asian oil exploration, one of the many ventures that made his life so fascinating. (There was also high-speed aviation, luxury cars, casinos, golf courses, steel, and probably a few other diversions that caught his attention for a few weeks, then fizzled.) Azeri refers to those things pertaining to the country of Azerbaijan, one of the nations reborn after the breakup of the Soviet Union, nestled in a mineral rich cradle between Turkey, Iran, and the Caspian Sea.

"I like her name because it reminds me of Arazi," said de Seroux, referring to Paulson's champion 2-year-old of both Europe and North America in 1991.

De Seroux, a disciple of Charlie Whittingham, turns 50 on Saturday, which means the La Canada will provide either a grand celebration or a blessed distraction. Azeri is the kind of filly who can give a trainer sleepless nights, but not of worry. Of anticipation.

She's very athletic," de Seroux said. "Light, and sort of cat-like. She has what Charlie would call 'hard-twisted bone' - real tight, clean cold legs. That means they can take it.

"She's the kind of filly, when she gets a rider on her back, she sort of lifts off the ground and has a lot of what we call impulsion. It looks rather ominous."

When she's at rest, you wouldn't pick Azeri out of a crowd, which is probably why she did not sell when consigned as a yearling. Michael Paulson - Allen's son and administrator of the estate - had her catalogued again to sell last November at Keeneland, but de Seroux had seen enough of Azeri by then to recommend they keep her for racing. Azeri made her debut on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita about the same time she would have been heading to Lexington for the sale. Luckily for de Seroux, the filly won by six.

Subsequent allowance wins on Dec. 17 at Hollywood and Jan. 12 at Santa Anita have stamped Azeri as the best of the untested.

"That's the question," de Seroux conceded. "I have a lot of respect for Affluent. She's a beautiful filly, but she's had her two races a little bit closer together than anyone would want. They've been 19 and 21 days apart.

"My main concern is that Azeri hasn't come under any pressure at all," the trainer added. "She hasn't had to fight. I foresee that she'll need to give more this time than she ever has before. But she's so generous, and she runs with such a joy. She has confirmed what we thought - that she was not just a nice filly, but something special."