10/25/2004 11:00PM

Azeri's mission: the Classic

Azeri arrives Tuesday at Lone Star Park, where on Saturday the 6-year-old mare will take on the world's best males in the BC Classic.

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - In 2002, owner Michael Paulson was desirous of running Azeri in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but trainer Laura de Seroux talked him out of it. Instead, Azeri won the Distaff, and subsequently was named Horse of the Year.

Last year, Paulson again was eager to take on the boys, but this time Azeri would not cooperate. She sulked so badly in two works before the Breeders' Cup that she was taken out of training, skipped the Breeders' Cup, and nearly was retired.

Paulson then turned Azeri over to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has a history of challenging males with his female runners. The inevitable result of that partnership played out on Tuesday, when Lukas announced that Azeri on Saturday would bypass the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff for females to instead take on the big boys in the $4 million Classic at Lone Star Park.

"This is Texas," Lukas said at a press luncheon in downtown Dallas. "The Breeders' Cup is kind of a Texas hold 'em, and we're going all in. We're going to go in the Classic."

The announcement was a publicist's dream, as it is sure to generate additional interest in this 21st World Thoroughbred Championships. But handicappers are likely to take a skeptical view of the decision. Azeri will be a mid-priced horse in a race that has several top-class runners, including last year's Classic winner, Pleasantly Perfect, as well as Birdstone, Funny Cide, Ghostzapper, and Roses in May. Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, has Azeri at 12-1 on his early line.

Azeri's lone previous try against males was in an eighth-place finish in the Metropolitan Handicap in May. She has raced 1 1/4 miles just once, finishing second in the Personal Ensign Handicap to Storm Flag Flying after attending a wickedly fast pace.

Azeri is the third female to run in the Classic. Jolypha, a European import, finished third in 1992 behind champions A.P. Indy and Pleasant Tap. Triptych ran sixth in the 1986 Classic.

"I've got this one better than I've ever had her," Lukas said. "She's as good right now as human hands can make her, and we're going to swing for the fences. She's already won the Distaff. She's the leading money-winner of all-time. We'll step out of the box and see if we can do something that has never been done before."

The stakes are high for Azeri. If she were to pull off the upset, she would be a popular choice for Horse of the Year. But if she loses, and a highly regarded older filly or mare like Island Fashion or Storm Flag Flying wins the Distaff, she could lose her chance of winning a third straight divisional championship.

Lukas said it was a "unanimous decision" between he and Paulson. He said Paulson "analyzed the competition, the configuration of the track, the pace scenario" after Lukas gave him the "all the pros and cons."

"I want him to be perfectly comfortable and that he's in the spot he wants," Lukas said.

"I know the majority are going to say, 'What's that about?' But be a little careful. I'm excited to lead her over there."

Pat Day agreed to ride Azeri no matter which race she ran in. If Azeri had run in the Distaff, Day would have ridden Perfect Drift in the Classic. Instead, Kent Desormeaux will get the mount on Perfect Drift.

A field of 13 was expected to be entered on Wednesday: Azeri (Day the rider), Birdstone (Edgar Prado), Bowman's Band (Cornelio Velasquez), Dynever (Corey Nakatani), Fantasticat (Gerard Melancon), Freefourinternet (Greta Kuntzweiler), Funny Cide (Jose Santos), Ghostzapper (Javier Castellano), Newfoundland (undecided), Perfect Drift (Desormeaux), Personal Rush (Frankie Dettori), Pleasantly Perfect (Jerry Bailey), and Roses in May (John Velazquez).

Bowman's Band worked one mile in 1:39.60 on a muddy track Tuesday morning at Lone Star. Shannon Uske was aboard.

At Belmont Park, Funny Cide worked a half-mile in 46.87 seconds on a fast track. Robin Smullen, his assistant trainer and regular exercise rider, was aboard.

Although the track at Lone Star was muddy on Tuesday, no rain had fallen since a heavy shower on Monday night. The National Weather Service forecast was for high temperatures in the low 80's most of the rest of the week.