09/29/2002 11:00PM

Azeri opens meet with bang

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When Azeri last started at Santa Anita in March, she won her first stakes in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap.

Six months later, Azeri returns to Santa Anita for Wednesday's $200,000 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap as the holder of a five-stakes winning streak that has given her the status of top older female in the United States.

The Lady's Secret is the featured race on the opening day of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting, which runs through Nov. 3. The first week of the 26-day meeting features eight prep races for the Breeders' Cup at Arlington Park on Oct. 26. Another highlight of the meeting is the popular $1.3 million California Cup for statebreds on Nov. 2.

The Lady's Secret is the first of the Breeders' Cup preps. There are four prep races races on Saturday and three on Sunday.

Azeri will be a strong favorite in the Lady's Secret, which is run over 1 1/16 miles. Trained by Laura de Seroux, Azeri will carry 127 pounds, the highest assignment of her nine-race career.

A win would solidify her status as the Breeders' Cup approaches. A loss would be a shock, and would make the Distaff a more wide-open race.

Despite Azeri's five-race winning streak, there is no shortage of challengers on Wednesday. Azeri will face seven other fillies and mares, including Mystic Lady, a New York shipper trained by Mark Hennig; Netherland, the winner of the Piedra Foundation Handicap at Del Mar for trainer Bob Baffert; and Angel Gift, who was second to Azeri in the Clement Hirsch Handicap.

Mystic Lady and Netherland could challenge Azeri for the early lead, which does not bother de Seroux. The versatility of the 4-year-old Azeri has been on display all year.

Early in the season, Azeri came from off the pace to win the Santa Margarita and Apple Blossom handicaps. During the late spring and summer, Azeri led throughout the Milady, Vanity, and Clement Hirsch handicaps. Mike Smith has been aboard for all of her starts.

Azeri's near-the-front style gives challengers an easy target in the Lady's Secret - and the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

"I want to see her relax and do whatever is necessary," de Seroux said. "I think the challenges will come from every direction - on the front, the middle, and behind."

Azeri has not started since the Clement Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 11, but she worked to de Seroux's satisfaction, six furlongs in 1:11.80 at San Luis Rey Downs on Sept. 21.

"Her last work was her signal,"

de Seroux said. "She knows when I give her a work like that a race is coming up."

Mystic Lady poses the biggest threat for Azeri. A 4-year-old, Mystic Lady was second in the 1 1/16-mile Turfway Park Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sept. 14, finishing 5 1/2 lengths behind Trip. Last year, Mystic Lady won six stakes at five tracks, but this year has managed only one win in six starts - the Banshee Breeze Stakes at Gulfstream Park in April.

"It's not like Mystic Lady has been on top of her game," Hennig said. "It seems like she's rounding back into her form. She's better at 1 1/16 miles. I thought her last race was a pretty good race. Trip loves that racetrack. If [Mystic Lady] is up to her form of last fall, and she seems to be better in the fall, we should be get a better line."

Hennig successfully raided Santa Anita last winter, winning the La Canada Stakes with Summer Colony, who finished a length in front of Azeri. The La Canada remains Azeri's only loss in nine starts. Since then, Azeri is unbeaten and Summer Colony has developed into the top older female on the East Coast. Their confrontation in the Breeders' Cup Distaff figures to be a highlight of that championship day.

The Lady's Secret will give Hennig another chance to gauge Azeri's talent, even though he doesn't regard Mystic Lady as highly as Summer Colony.

"I'm not bringing her out there just to run," Hennig said. "For Mystic Lady, there aren't that many opportunities at a mile and a sixteenth for this kind of money."

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