10/16/2003 11:00PM

Azeri refuses, then sizzles in workout

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BONSALL, Calif. - Azeri scorched the track at San Luis Rey Downs on Friday morning, but the subsequent steam was coming off trainer Laura de Seroux. On one hand, de Seroux was thrilled Azeri had bounced back quickly from her recent illness, but de Seroux was not looking for anything close to the sizzling six-furlong time of 1:10.20 that Azeri turned in during her final work for the .

In addition, de Seroux was concerned about Azeri's pre-work stubbornness. For several minutes, the 2002 Horse of the Year refused to budge from her perch near the finish line, despite urging from both exercise rider Brian Eide, who was on her back, and assistant Jeff Fort, who was astride a pony adjacent to Azeri.

What to make of all this was roiling through de Seroux's mind once the workout was over. The work itself was spectacular, in that Azeri accomplished it without the slightest bit of encouragement. And if it indeed was too fast, de Seroux was comforted by knowing the Oct. 25 Distaff was still eight days away.

"That's why I had the work eight days out," de Seroux said. "It's time to fish or cut bait. I want to make sure she's healthy and ready. If she hadn't worked like that, I'd still be wondering if she was back to her best. She did it on her own. There was no reluctance. She was normal, once she got going."

Azeri's obstinate behavior before the work was more difficult to quantify.

"I'm just wondering if there's some meaning to this, to her reluctance to go on," de Seroux said. "I'm sure some people are going to think she's sour, but this has been going on a long time. I don't want to read too much into it, but I am paying attention."

Azeri lost her most recent start in the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap, ending an 11-race losing streak. She bled in the race, and had an elevated white-cell count, but the illness subsided quickly.

Azeri came on the track on Friday at the six-furlong chute, moved clockwise to the finish line of the one-mile course, then stood for several minutes, refusing to move despite excessive prompting.

Finally, Azeri moved up the track to the top of the stretch, where she again paused for a couple of minutes. Now turned around, she galloped through the stretch, and continued on to begin her drill.

Azeri eased into her work at the six-furlong pole. De Seroux had told Eide to go off easy, perhaps in 14 seconds, because she only wanted the workout to be serious for the final five furlongs. A furlong into the drill, de Seroux glanced at her watch and said, "So much for going off in 14 seconds."

Azeri was flying. According to Daily Racing Form, she went her next quarter-mile in 22.69 seconds, a half-mile in 46.47 seconds, and finished five furlongs - from the five-furlong pole to the finish line - in 57.75 seconds. De Seroux, who had begun clocking Azeri from the six-furlong pole, looked at her watch and let out a sigh.

"One-ten and one," she said, adding an expletive.

After talking with Eide, and expressing her concern, de Seroux said, "I'm trying to digest it."

Over the next few days, de Seroux said she will "see if Azeri remains sharp, or if the work tails her off."