01/28/2005 1:00AM

Azeri proved doubters wrong

Azeri won 3 of 8 starts in 2004, but those three were the Apple Blossom, Go for Wand, and Spinster, all Grade 1's.

Azeri's place in racing history was secured in 2004 with her third straight championship season - something no mare had ever accomplished before - plus an unprecedented third straight victory in the prestigious Apple Blossom Handicap and enough earnings to become the leading female money-winner of all time.

Not bad for a mare who began the year as the hottest topic of racing's weblogs and chat rooms. When it came to , there was no neutral ground. She was either a) an unwilling passenger on an ego trip driven by Michael Paulson, who called the shots as managing member of the Allen Paulson Living Trust, or b) a dedicated trouper who deserved a chance to strut her stuff one more time.

Had the Azeri story ended in 2003, with the recommendation from trainer Laura de Seroux that she be retired due to an incipient tendon injury, the record would have stood scrutiny from all angles. To that point, Azeri had run 16 times and won 14, with earnings of $3,044,820.

She was Horse of the Year in 2002 - joining Twilight Tear, Busher, Mocassin, All Along, and Lady's Secret as females so honored - and twice in a row champion among older fillies and mares, placing her in a rarified group that included only Old Hat, Gamely, Shuvee, Bayakoa, and Paseana.

And yet, Paulson was convinced there was work left to be done. He sought out second opinions regarding Azeri's tendon and liked what he heard, then placed his mare in the care of a new trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, in order to mount a far different campaign.

For two solid seasons, Azeri had been mopping up a California female division that was all but rendered invisible by the champ. Paulson wanted to find out what else she could do. Azeri responded with a campaign of eight more races, run over six different tracks, beginning in April and ending in October. She won three times and finished second twice, and pretty much answered all the questions on the table.

She remained the dominant mare of her generation when it came to middle-distance races around two turns in small to midsize fields, reinforced by victories in the Apple Blossom, the Go for Wand, and the Spinster. She could not, however, win at sandy Belmont (eighth in the Met Mile, fourth in the Phipps), nor could she win a race against top males (the Met and a fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic), nor a race at 1 1/4 miles (the Classic and her second in the Personal Ensign). She was also beaten by a head in the Humana Distaff at seven furlongs on a sloppy-fast Churchill Downs surface while giving away 11 pounds and getting a bad trip. But no one held that against her.

"I could give you legitimate excuses for almost every one of her losses," Paulson said of Azeri, who is a daughter of Jade Hunter and the Ahonoora mare Zodiac Miss bred by Allen Paulson. "As for the Classic, nobody was going to beat Ghostzapper that day. But we could have been second or third if she hadn't been stuck on the rail."

In the end, it was Azeri who had the last word, rising above the debate and leaving the track with the same nobility that graced each of her 24 lifetime starts. As champion of the same division three straight years, she joins only Kelso, Forego, and Round Table in that regard. Such company is intimidating, but Paulson always knew she belonged. His gracious acceptance of Azeri's 2004 Eclipse Award included an observation rarely heard at such events:

"She has a beautiful soul," Paulson said.

With that, there can be no argument.