04/07/2003 12:00AM

Azeri ruled on a special racing day


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Azeri stands out.

On what was arguably the most meaningful afternoon of racing thus far this season, with stars from a number of divisions on display, Azeri towered over all with a compelling display of ability and courage in capturing the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at` Oaklawn Park.

The 2002 Horse of the Year, making her first start since her smashing victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last October, looked hopelessly beaten in midstretch as she drove in pursuit of the accomplished Take Charge Lady. Azeri would have none of it, however, and despite a concession of five pounds, came on to edge Take Charge Lady by a head under a fine ride by Mike Smith for her second Apple Blossom, a feat achieved only by that marvelous South American mare, Paseana.

What a splendid job by trainer Laura de Seroux to have Azeri ready for such heroics after a lengthy holiday, and what a horse to work with. Her record of 11 victories from 12 starts speaks for itself. and keeps repeating "exceptional." At 5, Azeri is to have a limited campaign this season. Her Apple Blossom derring-do suggests these appearances will be well worth attending.

The spectacular Bobby Frankel, who enjoyed a blockbuster season last year, is well on his way to another remarkable campaign. He produced Medaglia d'Oro in resplendent form on Saturday, and Medaglia d'Oro, a 4-year-old son of El Prado, made light work of the $500,000 Oaklawn Park Handicap, leading all the way and winning by almost three lengths under Jerry Bailey.

Medaglia d'Oro has brilliant speed and in Bailey's talented hands is a tough customer to beat. He is strongly reminiscent of Calumet Farm's Bardstown, who won two Wideners when that was one of America's premier handicaps. He appears to have the credentials of a legitimate Horse of the Year candidate and almost always puts on a grand show.

The $500,000 Ashland here at Keeneland Saturday looked to be an exercise in competition for the 3-year-old fillies, but in reality it was a cakewalk for Elloluv.

She was the speed of the Ashland, and was sent to the front by Robby Albarado, who immediately slowed the pace to a leisurely first half-mile in 48.72. She had plenty left off that kind of pace and won by almost four lengths.

Elloluv, a Gilded Time filly trained by Craig Dollase, won the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet last fall and lost two narrow decisions to Composure. She is going on to the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, where she may meet many of the same fillies she beat in the Ashland.

A crowd of 19,128 turned out for the first Saturday program of the spring meeting.

Cool weather was considered responsible for a drop of about 2,000 persons from the comparable card of last spring, and mutuel totals followed the same pattern.

Unlike many of the other Saturday features, the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby was a bitter struggle, with Buddy Gil once again showing great determination in getting to the surprising Indian Express, and winning by a head. Buddy Gill, by Eastern Echo, previously won the San Felipe by a nose over Atswhatimtaknbout, who was the Santa Anita Derby favorite.

Buddy Gil evidenced traces of blood after the race and was put on the vet's list. His people intend to go forward with their Kentucky Derby plans. They attribute the bleeding to a coughing incident as a result of swallowing dirt in Buddy Gil's fierce drive through the stretch.

Gary Stevens was notching a record ninth Santa Anita Derby victory with Buddy Gill, who has tactical speed but prefers to run from off the pace. After a mixed season at 2 under another trainer, the homebred Buddy Gil has won all three starts at 3 and seems to be making steady improvement.