03/12/2004 1:00AM

Azeri will return in Apple Blossom

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year and the champion older female in the last two seasons, will make her first start since September in the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 3, trainer D. Wayne Lukas confirmed Friday.

Lukas had mentioned the Apple Blossom as a possibility in recent weeks and finalized plans after Azeri worked six furlongs in 1:11.60 on Thursday at Santa Anita.

"I don't have any reservations about the Apple Blossom Handicap off what I've seen," Lukas said. "We know she has the quality. I know it's a big step, but I feel confident."

Lukas has trained Azeri since December, after a two-month break in training. In October, Laura de Seroux, who trained Azeri to her championships, announced Azeri's retirement after Azeri was diagnosed with a tendon injury.

Azeri was sent to Kentucky with the expectation that she would be bred, but in December she resumed training after she undergoing medical tests.

Owner Michael Paulson and de Seroux parted ways last fall, which led Paulson to send Azeri to Lukas.

Azeri resumed workouts in late January.

"I think we're right on target," Lukas said. "We hope to step right up to the major leagues."

Lukas was surprised at Azeri's workout Thursday.

"I thought she went slow," Lukas said. "She goes over the ground beautifully. I would have thought she went in 1:13 or 1:14."

Lukas insists that Azeri has encountered no soundness problems since her return.

Azeri, who has won 14 of 16 starts and $3,044,820, will be attempting to win the Apple Blossom for an unprecedented third time. She finished third in the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap last September at Santa Anita, but was promoted to second via disqualification. The loss ended an 11-race winning streak.

Nakatani back in court

Attorneys representing jockey Corey Nakatani will appear in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday to seek a temporary restraining order that will allow Nakatani to continue riding until an appeal is heard on a 30-day suspension he was given Thursday for rough riding.

Nakatani's suspension is scheduled to run from Thursday through April 28. He appealed the ruling to the California Horse Racing Board, but the appeal was denied, forcing court action.

The suspension stems from Nakatani's involvement in a spill March 6. Nakatani was aboard Mister Cosmi, who struck the rail after he was crowded by Terrifying, who was ridden by Javiar Santiago.

Nakatani and Santiago appeared to exchange words before Mister Cosmi then drifted out and bumped Terrifying near the half-mile pole. Terrifying stumbled, unseating Santiago, who was not injured in the fall.

Nakatani told Santa Anita stewards at a hearing Wednesday that he moved his mount to the outside to get clear room behind a pacesetter. The stewards issued their decision a day later.

The severity of the penalty surprised jockey Luis Jauregui, a friend of Nakatani's and a representative of the Jockeys' Guild at Santa Anita.

"I thought it was pretty tough," he said. "I don't think it was malicious. It wasn't a hateful thing. I know Corey. Some people think it was right, and other people think it was too much."

Ten Most Wanted eyes April return

Ten Most Wanted, a troubled fifth in the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds on Feb. 29, is being pointed for a return in April, trainer Wally Dollase said.

Dollase has narrowed the list of possible goals to four races - the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap, and the $150,000 San Bernardino Handicap at Santa Anita, all on April 3 - or the $250,000 National Jockey Club Stakes at Hawthorne on April 17.

"It will be the third or the 17th; I have to make that decision," Dollase said.

Ten Most Wanted won three stakes last year - the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

Stakes in Elusive Diva's future

Elusive Diva and Stormica, race winners Wednesday, are bound for stakes.

Elusive Diva won a one-mile allowance race by a length in 1:37.62. Trainer Mark Glatt said she is being considered for the $200,000 Fantasy Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Oaklawn Park on April 9.

Stormica remained unbeaten in two starts in this country after scoring a four-length win in an optional claimer over seven furlongs. She rallied from six lengths off the pace and finished in 1:22.45.

Stormica placed in three turf stakes in France last year.

Trainer Gary Mandella said Stormica, 4, needs ample time between races, but added that her next start will come in a stakes, possibly the $100,000 Desert Stormer Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 5.

Maiden Tower retired

Maiden Tower, a three-time stakes winner in France last year, has been retired and sent to Kentucky to be bred, trainer Eoin Harty said.

Owned by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stud, Maiden Tower finished her career with a fifth-place finish as the favorite in the Grade 2 Buena Vista Handicap over a mile on turf Feb. 21.

Maiden Tower, a 4-year-old by Groom Dancer, won 5 of 10 starts and $350,146. In France, her most prestigious win came in the Group 2 Prix de Sandringham last June. She was second in the French 1000 Guineas, losing by a length to Musical Chimes.

In three races in the United States, her best result was a second by a nose to Film Maker in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland on Oct. 11.

Weekend has one graded stakes

The $200,000 San Luis Rey Handicap over 1 1/2 miles on turf Saturday is the only graded stakes at Santa Anita next weekend.

Puerto Banus, the winner of the Sunset Handicap last July at Hollywood Park and the San Luis Obispo Handicap last month, leads a field expected to include Continental Red, Labirinto, Meteor Storm, Researched Special Matter.

* F J's Pace scored the 18th win of his career in Friday's fourth race on the hillside turf course for $80,000 claimers. Leading throughout, F J's Pace repelled a late challenge from Abderian to win by three-quarters of a length.

F J's Pace, 9, has made 61 starts and earned $726,686.