04/03/2003 12:00AM

Azeri takes race up a notch


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Last year, Azeri won in a field of all Grade 1 winners in the $500,000 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park and went on to become the first female since Lady's Secret in 1986 to be voted Horse of the Year.

This year, she makes what would have been a very good Apple Blossom great. The Apple Blossom is Azeri's first race since she romped by five lengths in the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 26.

The Grade 1 Apple Blossom opens the six-day Racing Festival of the South and shares Saturday's card with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap. Azeri is the 123-pound highweight in a field of seven, which also includes Grade 1 winners Take Charge Lady, Affluent, and Mandy's Gold.

The decision to ship Southern California-based Azeri to Hot Springs for the 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom wasn't difficult, said her trainer, Laura de Seroux.

"With no races for her at Santa Anita, she would have had to wait all the way to May 24 for the Milady at Hollywood, and she's ready to run now," said de Seroux.

"She's been here. She likes the track, and the purse is certainly attractive."

Azeri earned $2,181,540 last year, when she won 8 of 9 starts for the Allen Paulson Living Trust. She won five Grade 1 races during her Horse of the Year run, and following her season was given a "complete, natural rest," said de Seroux.

Upon her return to training, Azeri was not allowed to have strenuous works early in the year while the estate of her breeder, Allen Paulson, was settled. She recorded her first work back on Feb. 22, and the situation seems to have had no effect on her fitness for the Apple Blossom.

"We're fine. It didn't set us back," said de Seroux, who has been impressed with how sharply and powerfully Azeri has worked for her comeback.

"I dare say she seems mentally stronger and physically stronger, and that's not just my observation. People around her that have seen her for a long time all agree."

Azeri, whose last five wins have come wire to wire, is one of several quick, fresh starters in the Apple Blossom, and there is a chance the pace could be hot. But de Seroux is not fretting over such things.

"I'll leave that to Mike Smith's instincts," she said of Azeri's regular rider. "She certainly can sit next to a horse and look a horse in the eye, and she's not rank or one-dimensional."

Take Charge Lady, second highweight at 118, will be making her first start since Dec. 7, when she was a wire-to-wire winner of the $275,000 Great State Challenge Distaff at Sam Houston Race Park.

"She's doing very well, and she's run well off the layoff before," said Ken McPeek, who trains Take Charge Lady for Select Stable.

Last year in her 3-year-old debut, Take Charge Lady rolled to an 8 1/2-length win in the Grade 3 Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds. She went on to win the Ashland and Spinster, both Grade 1. Shane Sellers has the mount.

Affluent ships in for Ron McAnally, who trained Paseana, the only two-time winner of the Apple Blossom. In her last start, Affluent won the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap. Alex Solis has the mount on Affluent, who is owned by Janis Whitham.