05/24/2004 11:00PM

Azeri set for Met with Day


Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year and two-time champion older female, will make her first start against males in Monday's Grade 1, $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park, owner Michael Paulson confirmed Tuesday. Among the horses Azeri will likely face is Funny Cide, last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and 3-year-old champion.

Paulson also confirmed that Pat Day will replace jockey Mike Smith, the only rider Azeri has known in her stellar career. Smith guided Azeri to 15 wins and 3 seconds from 18 starts and earnings of $3,401,070. If Azeri runs first or second in the Met Mile, she would become Thoroughbred racing's all-time leading female money earner, passing Spain ($3,540,542).

Paulson has wanted to run Azeri against males for a long time, and trainer D. Wayne Lukas has targeted the Met Mile for months. The last piece of the equation was completed Tuesday when Azeri was assigned a palatable 117 pounds. Because she is a female, Azeri was afforded a five-pound weight allowance.

Others expected to run in the Met, and their weight assignments, are Pico Central (119), Strong Hope (119), Funny Cide (118), Gygistar (115), Mobil (115), Bowman's Band (114), Eye of the Tiger (114), and Saarland (113).

"I've always thought she'd fare very well against males," Paulson said. "She's dominated females the last several years. I guess the big thing is we're getting a little weight off of her. She carried more weight last year than Mineshaft carried being Horse of the Year and nobody ever gave her much credit for it."

Azeri carried 125 pounds when she lost a head decision to Mayo on the Side - who carried 114 pounds - in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Azeri was checked twice, yet still put forth a courageous effort.

"It was just unfortunate circumstances," Paulson said. "I'm sure Mike did the best he could. She was thrown a lot of obstacles, and most horses thrown those obstacles would have finished last."

Regarding the switch to Day, Paulson said, "Primarily, our campaign with Azeri is going to be on the East Coast this year. Mike being a West Coast rider, Wayne decided it was easier for him to get Pat Day."

Azeri is expected to ship to New York from Kentucky on Saturday.

At Belmont on Tuesday, Funny Cide worked five furlongs in 59.43 seconds, the fastest of 18 works at the distance.