10/03/2002 12:00AM

Azeri shakes off Lady's Secret foes

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The opposition tried to challenge Azeri at various points in Wednesday's $217,500 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita, but in the end it made no difference.

Winning her sixth consecutive graded stakes, Azeri pulled away in early stretch to win by 3 1/2 lengths and confirm her status as the favorite for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff at Arlington Park on Oct. 26.

Azeri ($2.60) finished 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.10 under jockey Mike Smith. The 4-year-old Azeri carried top weight of 127 pounds and spotted her rivals from 11 to 15 pounds.

Typical of her wins throughout the year, Azeri was always close to the pace. She was challenged on the first turn by Netherland, but shook clear to lead by a half-length after a quarter-mile in 22.58 seconds.

On the backstretch, Azeri was headed by Mystic Lady, who led briefly on the final turn. The two ran together to early stretch before Azeri pulled away.

"Mike was cruising, and with them packing 127 pounds, I said, 'Let's see how good you are,'" said jockey Gary Stevens, who rode Mystic Lady. "Azeri is the best mare in the country right now."

Smith geared Azeri down in the final sixteenth and won comfortably over Starrer, who caught Mystic Lady in the final strides.

Trainer Laura de Seroux did not think that Azeri had a difficult race.

"Azeri is fast and she can carry that speed," de Seroux said. "I think she's faster than the fillies on the East Coast. She's put on 25 pounds of mass since her last race. She's stronger. My concern was that she would have a tough race. She didn't."

Owned by the Allen Paulson Living Trust, Azeri has won nine of 10 starts and $1,187,740.

She will travel to Chicago on Oct. 22 and will have one work in the interim. In the Breeders' Cup, Azeri will be tested by an international cast. From Wednesday's race, de Seroux feels confident that Azeri can handle a fight.

"It made me confident to know that Azeri can get headed," de Seroux said. "Mike let her out a notch and she responded."

Buffythecenterfold a baffler

The recent training of Buffythecenterfold has left trainer Mel Stute baffled as she approaches Sunday $200,000 Oak Leaf Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.

Last weekend, she worked a mile in a slow 1:40.40, but on Thursday rebounded to work five furlongs in a respectable 1:00.60.

"She's confused me, but I've been confused before and things worked out okay," Stute said.

The winner of the Landaluce Stakes and Sorrento Stakes during the summer, Buffythecenterfold is coming off a seventh-place finish in the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante at Del Mar on Aug. 31.

The Oak Leaf is a vital race for Buffythecenterfold as a prep to the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Stute said she needs to run well Sunday to run in the Juvenile Fillies.

The Oak Leaf Stakes will be Buffythecenterfold's first start in a route race. Run over 1 1/16 miles, the Oak Leaf is expected to include Composure, Espy, Heart ofa Champion, Sea Jewel, and possibly Tale of a Dream. Composure, a stylish maiden winner at Del Mar, is the likely favorite.

Opening day numbers up from last year

Attendance and handle figures on Wednesday's opening program of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting showed increases over the corresponding day in 2001.

The ontrack attendance of 13,120 was a gain of 12.1 percent, while the ontrack handle of $2,766,043 was an increase of 10.6 percent. The all-sources handle of $9,693,364 was a gain of 9 percent over 2001.

"We had good weather and we had good fields," said Sherwood Chillingworth, the executive vice president of Oak Tree. "We had more than nine horses per race.

"We had a very good opening, and we hope it continues."

Oaks purse up to $750,000

The purse for the American Oaks at Hollywood Park has been raised to $750,000 for the 2003 running in July. For 3-year-old fillies over 1 1/4 miles on turf, the invitational race was inaugurated this year with a $500,000 purse.

Megahertz was the promoted winner after Dublino was disqualified from first to second for causing interference in the stretch. The race drew 14 fillies from throughout the United States and Europe.

The 2003 running is scheduled for July 5. Invitations will be issued on June 22.

* Laffit Pincay Jr. has been given a five-day suspension for causing interference after the start of Wednesday's sixth race. Aboard Crafty n' Smooth, Pincay was ruled to have bothered Adina Duca, who unseated G.F. Almeida. Pincay's suspension starts on Thursday and continues through Oct. 14.

* Victor Espinoza starts a six-day suspension on Saturday for a riding infraction in Japan last month. The suspension continues through Oct. 12.