10/02/2002 11:00PM

Azeri wins Lady's Secret

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The opposition tried to challenge Azeri at various points in Wednesday's $217,500 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita, but in the end it made no difference.

Winning her sixth consecutive graded stakes, Azeri pulled away in early stretch to win by 3 1-2 lengths and confirm her status as the favorite for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff at Arlington Park on Oct. 26.

Azeri ($2.60) finished 1 1-16 miles in 1:41.10 under jockey Mike Smith. The 4-year-old Azeri carried topweight of 127 pounds and spotted her rivals from 11 to 15 pounds.

Typical of her wins throughout the year, Azeri was always close to the pace.

She was challenged on the first turn by Netherland, but shook clear to lead by a half-length after a quarter mile in 22.58 seconds.

On the backstretch, Azeri was headed by Mystic Lady, who led briefly on the final turn. The two ran together to early stretch before Azeri pulled away.

"Mike was cruising, and with them packing 127 pounds, I said, 'Let's see how good you are,'" said jockey Gary Stevens, who rode Mystic Lady. "Azeri is the best mare in the country right now."

Smith geared Azeri down in the final sixteenth and won comfortably over Starrer, who caught Mystic Lady in the final strides.

Trainer Laura de Seroux did not think that Azeri had a difficult race.

"Azeri is fast and she can carry that speed," de Seroux said. "I think she's faster than the fillies on the East Coast. She's put on 25 pounds of mass since her last race. She's stronger. My concern was that she would have a tough race. She didn't."

Owned by the Allen Paulson Living Trust, Azeri has won 9 of 10 starts and $1,187,740.

She will ship to Chicago on Oct. 22 and will have one work in the interim. In the Breeders' Cup, Azeri will face a similar test throughout the race from an international cast. From Wednesday's race, de Seroux feels confident that Azeri can handle a fight.

"It made me confident to know that Azeri can get headed," de Seroux said.

"Mike let her out a notch and she responded."