03/30/2004 12:00AM

Azeri, Smith reunited


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Azeri may be racing for a new trainer Saturday in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, but she will have a familiar partner on the racetrack in jockey Mike Smith.

For a while it appeared that Smith, who has ridden Azeri in all of her races, might not be able to team with the 2002 Horse of the Year because he was booked to ride Kentucky Derby prospect Lion Heart in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby the same day. But the connections of Lion Heart said Monday that the colt will skip that race in favor of the Grade 1 Blue Grass on April 10. That opened the door for Smith, who has ridden Azeri 16 times and won 14 races aboard her, including the last two runnings of the Apple Blossom.

"They're a good match," said Michael Paulson, who owns Azeri. "We [gave] him first choice to ride her, [then] he had the conflict with Lion Heart."

The open mount on Azeri kept the phone of her new trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, abuzz with agents hoping to secure the ride, said Paulson. But her connections played their hand slowly, did not commit to a rider, and in the end secured familiar hands for Azeri.

"He knows her very well," Paulson said of Smith. "He's ridden her from her maiden all the way up to her stakes races."

The Apple Blossom riding assignment for Grade 1 winner Star Parade was also confirmed Tuesday. John McKee, the leading rider at Oaklawn, will be aboard Star Parade, said her trainer, Darrell Vienna.

There were six probables for the 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares as of Tuesday. The others are Wild Spirit, Jerry Bailey; Island Fashion, Kent Desormeaux; Golden Sonata, Carlos Marquez Jr.; and Keys to the Heart, no rider.

Star Parade has developed rapidly in her last several starts, winning the Grade 2 Bayakoa at Hollywood Park on Dec. 7 and the Grade 1 Santa Maria at Santa Anita on Feb. 16. In her most recent start, Star Parade was second to Adoration in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita.

"I don't think it's an easy race, but [Star Parade] is a very good filly, and I think she's earned her way in there," Vienna said of the Apple Blossom. "If she runs like she normally does, they have to catch her."

Golden Sonata, the one local in the Apple Blossom, will benefit if the pace is hot. In her last start, she rallied from 15 lengths back to win the Grade 3, $200,000 Oaklawn Breeders' Cup at 29-1. The Apple Blossom will be the final race of Golden Sonata's career, as she is scheduled to be bred to A.P. Indy. Morris Nicks, who trains Golden Sonata, could not be happier with how she is training.

"She's just blooming," he said. "She's doing everything right."

The Apple Blossom is co-featured with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on the first day of the annual Racing Festival of the South. The Festival is made up of nine stakes, with at least one a day to be run through the close of the meet, April 10.

The Apple Blossom will go as race 9 on a 12-race program, with approximate post set for 5:08 p.m. Central. The Oaklawn Handicap is scheduled as the 11th, at 6:04 p.m.

House of Fortune to Fantasy

House of Fortune, who had been under consideration for the Grade 1 Ashland following her 17-length romp in the $75,000 California Oaks, has been rerouted to the Grade 2, $200,000 Fantasy here on April 9. The move comes after a six-furlong work for the Ashland was disrupted during training hours Sunday at Santa Anita.

"She had just got to the quarter pole and a loose horse was coming the wrong way and her rider had to pull up," said Dan Landers, assistant to trainer Ron McAnally. "She had to abort a three-quarter work."

House of Fortune is scheduled to fly into Oaklawn on April 7.

House of Fortune has won 4 of 7 starts, including three stakes. She also placed third to Hollywood Story in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet. Alex Solis is the regular rider on House of Fortune.

Others probable for the Fantasy are Miss Coronado, Elusive Diva, and Island Sand. Possibles include America America, Platinum Ballet, Stephan's Angel, Turn to Lass, and Yoursmineours.

Key race in the making

Dia Alegre will make a recent optional claimer a key race if he wins the featured ninth on Thursday. Go Legs Go was the first winner to come out of the March 6 allowance, in which he was beaten a head by Defrere's Vixen.

Dia Alegre was another 2 1/4 lengths back in third. His chief rivals Thursday, in a 1 1/16-mile allowance that carries a claiming option of $35,000, appear to be Ship Alert, Triton Missile, and Witt Ante.

Go Legs Go won an allowance two weeks ago. Dia Alegre seems to be next in line to score.

In two starts at the meet, he has put in two strong races, finishing second in a $40,000 claiming race on Feb. 6, then third in the optional claimer. He raced with the top two horses in a tight stretch battle until they pulled away late.

"It was a tough, tough race," said Cole Norman, who trains Dia Alegre. "Those two horses were really running down the lane. They finished up."

Norman looks for Dia Alegre to be stalking the pace Thursday and has given the mount to Jamie Theriot.