10/24/2003 12:00AM

Azeri's owners face difficult decision

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Azeri's loss to Got Koko in the Lady's Secret Handicap on Sept. 28 appears to have done more than put an end to the 2002 Horse of the Year's winning streak. Quite possibly, it will be the end of her racing career, as well. With the announcement of tendon trouble and comments strongly hinting that the big chestnut mare's enthusiasm for the game may be waning, it seems very doubtful that the Allen E. Paulson Trust would try to bring her back next year and risk injury to such a splendid racemare.

The spokesman for the Paulson family, however, declined to rule out a return to racing. Michael Paulson, who is in charge of managing the trust for himself and his two brothers, said that "there is no big rush to make decisions about either racing or breeding her."

Instead, "we want to let her back to her roots," Paulson said. "We've shipped her back to Kentucky, and Azeri should have landed in Lexington around 3 p.m. [on Thursday]. We'll let her spend the fall there, eat some bluegrass, and enjoy herself. We know she likes the cool weather. It really picked her up in Chicago last year."

Paulson said that the owners haven't decided the direction they will take with Azeri.

Certainly, retirement and a future as a broodmare would present some interesting alternatives for Azeri's owners. First, they could keep the mare and breed her, hoping to produce either racehorses or sales yearlings that would promote the interests of the trust.

Second, they could sell Azeri, either as a racehorse out of training at an auction such as Keeneland January or as a broodmare in foal at next year's breeding stock sales.

The option to sell her has to be tempting, at least in terms of immediate economics.

By doing so, the trust would be cashing out on the mare at the height of her fame and public awareness. The winner in 14 of her 16 starts, earner of more than $3 million, and Horse of the Year, Azeri would be an exotic and very expensive collector's item at auction.

A racemare rarely ever exceeds the value she has when she retires from racing or when she is carrying her first foal. At those moments, all of a broodmare's future is ahead of her, and there are no disappointments or problems to lay against her account.

Should Azeri's owners choose to sell her, the mare's racing record will compare favorably with most any American champion who has sold publicly in the past several years. The most similar was champion Escena, also a winner of the Breeders' Cup Distaff and nearly $3 million in a career, who won four Grade 1 races. As a broodmare prospect at the Keeneland January sale in 1999, she sold for $3.25 million.

Some of the subtleties of appraisal would allow an increase in that figure with respect to Azeri. After all, she has a race record of very high merit. Also, one could argue with good reason that the market on broodmare values has moved upward since 1999 and that Escena, in hindsight, represents very good value.

However, Escena - also bred and raced by Allen Paulson - has a stronger and more commercially vibrant family than Azeri does. Escena was out of the Seattle Slew mare Claxton's Slew, who also produced two other group or graded winners. And Claxton's Slew herself, when she was in foal to Storm Cat at age 16, sold for $3.3 million to John Magnier.

In contrast, Azeri is one of two registered foals out of her dam, the stakes-winning Zodiac Miss, who was bred in Australia. Zodiac Miss and her third foal were killed by lightning while grazing in a pasture at Brookside Farm (now Diamond A Farm) outside Versailles, Ky. And Zodiac Miss was one of three foals out of her dam, the Try My Best mare Capriconia, who was bred in Ireland.

Despite the scarcity of family members in the past two generations, a racehorse of Azeri's ability catches the imagination of the public, which will observe her future with interest.