05/23/2002 12:00AM

Azeri wearing a target for Milady


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It may be only Memorial Day weekend, but Azeri already has a firm grip on the nation's older filly and mare division.

This year, Azeri has won two Grade 1 races, both on dirt: the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap at Santa Anita in March and the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 6. She makes her first start since the Apple Blossom on Saturday in the $200,000 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park against five other older fillies and mares.

Run over 1 1/16 miles, the Grade 1 Milady arrives just in time, according to Azeri's trainer, Laura de Seroux.

"She's definitely behaving like seven weeks is too long between races," de Seroux said.

Azeri has won 5 of 6 starts, all with jockey Mike Smith. A 4-year-old, her lone defeat was a second in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes on Feb. 9.

In all three of her stakes starts, Azeri has stalked the pace to the stretch. In the Milady, Azeri, the 122-pound highweight, will chase pacesetters Cashmina and Ask Me No Secrets, both of whom are coming off strong front-running performances.

Cashmina was second in the restricted Santa Lucia Handicap at Santa Anita on March 31 after leading to the final sixteenth. Ask Me No Secrets led throughout the Grade 3 Oaklawn Park Breeders' Cup Stakes on March 16, but was scratched from the Hawthorne Handicap on April 27 because of illness.

"We'll be right off them, if Mike can," de Seroux said. "She's pretty fresh, but also very ridable."

Affluent, the winner of the El Encino Stakes, is the biggest threat to Azeri. Affluent was beaten only 1 3/4 lengths by Azeri in the Apple Blossom, but Affluent's trainer, Ron McAnally, said his filly had to steady when Azeri drifted out in the stretch or she might have been closer.

"The winner, when she made her run, came out into our path," McAnally said. "As a rule, most horses, when you have to steady, it will hinder their momentum. I don't know if we could have beaten that filly or not."

Affluent carries 119 pounds and breaks from the rail, next to Azeri.

Collect Call, who was third in the 2001 Kentucky Oaks, and Elaine's Angel, a longshot, complete the field. They have a daunting task trying to beat Azeri.

"She enjoys whatever she does and is doing well," de Seroux said. "She takes care of that for me. She seems to continue to improve physically. Every race, she adds depth, scope, and strength to her frame."

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