08/01/2004 12:00AM

Azeri win thrills big Spa crowd

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Horsephotos
Azeri (second from right) turns for home on her way to a 1 3/4-length tally over Sightseek (left) in the Grade 1 Go For Wand Handicap at Saratoga on Sunday. Storm Flag Flying (right) finished third.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Azeri is back in a big way.

In a thrilling stretch battle that left the crowd with goose bumps despite the stifling heat and humidity, Azeri turned back a challenge from Sightseek to win Sunday's Grade 1 in stakes-record time at Saratoga before an announced crowd of 50,122.

Azeri defeated Sightseek, the 3-5 favorite and last year's winner, by 1 3/4 lengths in the $245,000 Go for Wand. Storm Flag Flying finished third, two lengths behind Sightseek. Mayo on the Side and La Reason completed the order of finish in the 1 1/8-mile race. Longshot Board Elligible was a late scratch by chief examining veterinarian Celeste Kunz behind the starting gate.

The win in the Go for Wand boosted Azeri's earnings to $3,569,820, a North American record for a filly or mare. The previous record ($3,540,542) was held by Spain, who like Azeri, is trained by D. Wayne Lukas. Japanese sensation Seeking the Pearl, who raced three times in the United States without a win, holds the world record at $4,012,716.

Azeri, with Pat Day in the saddle, set the pace while racing well off the rail through fractions of 24.33 seconds, 47.75, and 1:10.12. Sightseek, with Jerry Bailey aboard, raced in second position, a half-length behind Azeri down the backstretch. As the field rounded the turn, Sightseek ranged up boldly to the outside of Azeri and those two raced head to head until Azeri bravely shook off the favorite and drew away in the final furlong.

Azeri ($7.90) covered the distance over a fast track in 1:47.86.

Day said, "It was a gallant effort by a gallant mare."

Azeri carried 120 pounds, two less than the highweight, Sightseek. In the Ogden Phipps, Sightseek, the winner, was in receipt of three pounds from Azeri, who finished fourth.

"Tell Mr. Lakow to swing us back five pounds the other way now," said an irritated Bailey in reference to racing secretary and handicapper Mike Lakow. "That was what got us beat."

For the Azeri team, the Go for Wand was redemption for the 6-year-old champion who some people believed was over the top after losing her last three starts. As Azeri walked into the winner's circle, she was greeted with a standing ovation from the packed grandstand.

Michael Paulson, Azeri's owner, said the response was gratifying.

"It's great when you see all the fans cheering for the champion," Paulson said.

Lukas, who took over the training of Azeri from Laura De Seroux last December, said the win was an emotional one for him.

"We've had more than one horse that people have written off and have come back to win big," Lukas said.