05/26/2004 12:00AM

Azeri taking on tall order in Met Mile


LAS VEGAS - There are few worlds left to conquer for 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, but one thing she has not done is face males. While 6-year-old Azeri may not be in her prime, the old gal has demonstrated that she still has what it takes to win at the highest level, and she finally gets a chance to race against males on Monday in the Metropolitan Handicap, the most important one-mile race in this country.

The last filly to beat males in the Metropolitan Handicap was Gallorette (1946), who returned one year later at age 5 to finish third. Only three fillies have even finished in the money in the Metropolitan since 1965 - Affectionately, Lady's Secret, and Honest Lady.

Affectionately (by Swaps) won 28 of 52 lifetime starts and was one of the most beloved fillies during the mid 1960's. She was never better than at age 5, and in the spring of 1965 her trainer, Hirsch Jacobs, had ample reason to go against males in the Metropolitan Handicap. Affectionately had reeled off consecutive victories against her own sex in the Correction and Distaff handicaps, beaten males in the Toboggan Handicap, finished third under top weight of 127 pounds in the Roseben Handicap behind the colts National and Chieftain, and captured the Top Flight Handicap in her first race at 1 1/8 miles by eight romping lengths over the high-class Steeple Jill and Old Hat.

But Affectionately was going up against a monster in Gun Bow, who was possibly the best horse to never win a championship. The previous year, Gun Bow set the racing world on its ear and gave four-time reigning Horse of the Year Kelso fits. Kelso did defeat Gun Bow decisively in their final meeting in the Washington D.C. International to earn a fifth Horse of the Year title, but with 8-year-old Kelso on the sidelines, 5-year-old Gun Bow was the heir apparent.

As was her custom, Affectionately, carrying 121 pounds, tried to steal the race. But after six furlongs in 1:08.20, she could not hold off Gun Bow, who carried high weight of 130 pounds, and Chieftain (117 pounds), and finished third, 4 1/2 lengths clear of fourth-place Pluck (114 pounds).

Lady's Secret finished third behind Garthorn and Love That Mac in the 1986 Metropolitan, and in 2000 Honest Lady finished second to Yankee Victor.

While Azeri (by Jade Hunter) meets no Gun Bows in this year's field, it promises to be a very entertaining event. When Funny Cide (Distorted Humor) was scratched from the Pimlico Special because of the high humidity, the Met Mile became the next goal. Although Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes last year, the one-mile distance may actually be the best fit for Funny Cide, and it would be no surprise to see one of his best efforts in the Met. Pico Central (Spend a Buck), 2003 champion sprinter in Brazil, is perfect in three starts this year, including victories in the San Carlos Handicap and Carter Handicap, where he defeated Strong Hope, Eye of the Tiger, and Gygistar, all of whom are returning in the Met.

Strong Hope, who won last year's Jim Dandy and Dwyer Stakes and also finished third behind Ten Most Wanted and Peace Rules in the Travers Stakes, may be the one to beat. By Grand Slam, Strong Hope is ideally suited to the Met Mile and could turn the tables on Pico Central. Strong Hope carries the Rasmussen Factor (inbreeding to a superior female within five generations through different individuals), as he is inbred 4x3 to the exceptional broodmare, Sex Appeal, the dam of El Gran Senor (found in Grand Slam's pedigree) and Solar (the second dam of Strong Hope). Sex Appeal is also the dam of Try My Best and Compliance. In fact, Sex Appeal herself has a double Rasmussen Factor, as she was inbred to the influential matrons La Troienne and Selene. Strong Hope has already demonstrated high quality and fits the profile of past Met winners.

After winning all five of his starts as a 3-year-old in 2002, including the King's Bishop, Dwyer, Riva Ridge Breeders' Cup Stakes and Hallandale Beach Handicap, Gygistar (Prospector's Music) had a frustrating season last year, but was impressive winning the one-mile Westchester Handicap by 4 1/4 lengths on May 5.

Mobil comes from Canada for the Met. He won five stakes last year at age 3 in Canada, and was runner-up to Wando in the Queen's Plate. He won the Vigil Handicap at Woodbine in his 4-year-old debut and his sire, Langfuhr, won the 1997 Met Mile.

With a ton of speed signed on for this year's Met, the race could set up for a strong closer like Saarland. But Saarland, a well-bred son of Unbridled, has been inconsistent. He did, however, run one of his best races in last year's Met Mile, closing fastest of all to finish second to Aldebaran.

Saarland's trainer, Shug McGaughey, was named a member of racing's Hall of Fame on Tuesday, and it would only be fitting if Saarland won the Met. McGaughey finished second and third in 1989, when Proper Reality nosed out his entry of Seeking the Gold and Dancing Spree in a dramatic finish.