04/27/2004 11:00PM

Azeri star of the Derby undercard


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On any other day, Azeri would be the marquee name on the billboard and the star of the show. But on the first Saturday in May, even a multiple Eclipse Award winner and former Horse of the Year must take a back seat to the main event, the 130th Kentucky Derby. Azeri will have to play a supporting role Saturday, when she makes her second start of the season in the $250,000 Humana Distaff Handicap.

The Humana Distaff, run at seven furlongs, is one of two Grade 1 races and five stakes that make up the undercard for the 2004 Kentucky Derby. The other Grade 1 race is the $400,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic for older horses going 1 1/8 miles on the grass.

Other stakes to be run before the Derby are the Grade 2, $200,000 Churchill Downs Handicap; the Grade 3, $100,000 Argent Mortgage Stakes; and the $100,000 Three Chimneys.

Azeri turns back to seven furlongs for her second start of the year. She opened her 2004 campaign with an impressive 1 1/2-length victory over Wild Spirit in the 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Azeri will carry high weight of 125 pounds, including regular rider Mike Smith, and will concede from four to 15 pounds to her six rivals.

Randaroo and Bear Fan, both entering the race off a pair of stakes victories, have the best chance of upsetting Azeri in the Humana.

Defending champion Honor in War is among the 11 turf specialists entered for the Woodford Reserve. To retain his title, Honor in War will have to defeat a stellar group that includes Perfect Soul, Burning Sun, Kicken Kris, Stroll, Sweet Return, and Mystery Giver.

Trainer Bobby Frankel sends out Etoile Montante in the Argent Mortgage (formerly called the Citgo Distaff Turf Mile) to defend the title his Heat Haze won last year. Etoile Montante prepped for the Argent Mortgage in the same manner as Heat Haze, with a victory in Santa Anita's 6 1/2-furlong Las Cienegas Handicap.

Sand Springs, a multiple graded stakes winner, leads the competition, which also includes Honorable Cat, Shaconage, Flager, Blu Spur, Chance Dance, Abbey Bridge, Reason to Talk, and Darby's Charm.

Congaree will be the odds-on favorite to beat seven rivals in the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Handicap. He will concede up to 11 pounds to rivals that include Speightstown, Private Horde, Key Deputy, New York Hero, McCann's Mojave, Saint Waki, and Publication.

A field of only seven juveniles was assembled for the Three Chimneys. Limehouse, a member of this year's Kentucky Derby field, won the race last year.

Trainer Steve Asmussen will send out the uncoupled pair of Lunarpal and Goes to vie for favoritism in the five-furlong Three Chimneys.