04/03/2004 1:00AM

Azeri wires Apple Blossom

Jeff Coady
Azeri cruises to the wire a 1 1/2-length, front-running winner of the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Azeri made a triumphant return to the races Saturday when, in her first start back from a six-month layoff, she won the Grade 1, $500,000 for a record third time. She wired an all-star field of fillies and mares in the 1 1/16-mile race, covering the distance in a razor-sharp 1:41.24.

It was the fastest Apple Blossom time turned in by Azeri. She won the race in 2001 in 1:42.60, and in 2002 in 1:43.

Azeri was also spotting each of her rivals weight as the 123-pound highweight. This year's Apple Blossom was her first start for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. It was a powerful beginning to a season that her connections hope will lead to championship honors for a third straight year. Azeri was Horse of the Year and champion older mare in 2002, and was also champion older mare in 2003.

Azeri broke a step slowly under regular rider Mike Smith, recovered quickly, and was in command of the race through an opening quarter in 23.20 seconds. Star Parade pushed the pace along in second, while Azeri continued to lead through fractions of 46.60 seconds for the half-mile and 1:10.80 for six furlongs. She was never challenged late, and finished 1 1/2 lengths clear of the favorite, Wild Spirit.

The victory was meaningful to Michael Paulson, who manages the Allen Paulson Living Trust that races Azeri. He sent the mare to Lukas in December after she was withdrawn from last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff and briefly sent to Kentucky.

"She was never retired," Paulson said. "As you can see today, it would have been a shame to have retired her. She's one of a kind, and one of the greatest fillies and mares of all time, and it's a real privilege to be involved with her."

Star Parade finished third, 1 3/4 lengths behind Wild Spirit. John McKee, the rider of Star Parade, claimed foul against Wild Spirit for bumping his mount past the quarter pole, and there was a stewards' inquiry into the incident, but the results stood. The order of finish was completed by Island Fashion, Keys to the Heart, and Golden Sonata.

Azeri, who was sent to post as third choice in the wagering, paid $6. She earned $300,000 for the victory, which was her 15th from 17 career starts. Her earnings now stand at $3,344,820. Azeri is within striking distance of passing Spain as the all-time richest filly or mare in North America. Spain earned $3,540,542.

Attendance at Oaklawn on Saturday was 31,076. Handle on the 12-race card was meet-high $8,378,386.