04/02/2003 12:00AM

Azeri's worldwide following grows

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The rare Karabakh horse of mountainous Azerbaijan traces back to the fifth century. It is not a large horse, described in various livestock references as built "clean and thick-set," with muscles well-developed and tendons well-defined, topped by a small, clean-cut head with a sharp eye and straight profile.

The loin is flat, short and wide, the croup is wide and strong, and the chest is deep. The hair, noted one review, "is soft and gleaming, either chestnut or bay with a characteristic golden tint."

Sound familiar?

The Azeri culture loves its Karabakh horse, just as the American racing world is enthralled by its very own Azeri. Ten years ago, not long after the Republic of Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union, one of the first postage stamps issued by the new nation bore the image of the Karabakh horse.

America has yet to bestow such an honor upon Azeri. But just as the Karabakh is a fast horse for its size, possessing long, slender legs and hard feet, the racehorse named Azeri, though modest in appearance, has been larger than life by most measures of a Thoroughbred.

The late Allen Paulson, Azeri's breeder, was inspired to use the name because of his investment in oil exploration in Azerbaijan, a small nation bordered by Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. Today, Azeri races for Paulsons' sons Michael, Richard, and James.

Saturday at Oaklawn Park, in the Apple Blossom Handicap for older fillies and mares, Azeri will make her first start as reigning Horse of the Year. This in itself should be cause for celebration, since more often than not a Horse of the Year is whisked away to stud, retired, and economically maximized before the glow has a chance to fade.

There is reason to be gun-shy. Since 1971, when the Eclipse Awards consolidated championship voting, there have been 13 Horses of the Year sent out to defend their titles. Only four of them succeeded: Secretariat, Forego, Affirmed, and Cigar.

It is hard to fault Sunday Silence or Holy Bull. They were both injured before building any momentum toward a second consecutive title. Seattle Slew, John Henry, All Along, and Tiznow suffered from seasons shortened by illness or injury, and yet they did nothing to tarnish their crowns. Of those 13, only Lady's Secret, Ferdinand, and Favorite Trick failed to live up to their own high standards of the previous year.

Azeri departed her training grounds at San Luis Rey Downs early Wednesday morning, heading for the familiar sights and sounds of Oaklawn.

She won the Apple Blossom last year, one of seven consecutive stakes victories in a run that stretched from the Santa Margarita in March to the Breeders' Cup in late October.

If anything, the people caring for Azeri are even more entranced today than they were a year ago. Like the Karabakh, she is constructed for speed and durability, made of "hard-twisted bone," as her trainer, Laura de Seroux, likes to say. She gives her mentor, Charlie Whittingham, credit for the line.

"I don't have much trepidation, because she's worked so phenomenally," said de Seroux while en route to Arkansas. She's surrounded by people who know her so well, and who are not prone to hyperbole.

Brian Eide, Azeri's exercise rider, is one of them. De Seroux recalled their most recent workout at San Luis Rey, a final piece of business that had a small crowd gasping.

"There were a lot of people back at the barn, and Brian motioned me over to him," de Seroux said. "My heart just dropped. My first thought was that he's going to tell me something didn't feel right. We moved to the side of the crowd and he said, quietly, 'She has never felt better.'"

Her pulse rate restored, De Seroux continued her plans for the Apple Blossom and beyond. The first step back is always the toughest.

Azeri's re-entry comes at a time when the sport tends to be preoccupied with the nation's 3-year-old colts scrambling for their two minutes of fame on Kentucky Derby Day. Fine. And when they are finished, Azeri and her older, more reliable colleagues will still be around, anxious to please.

Is it too much to wish for a Hollywood Gold Cup featuring Congaree, Medaglia d'Oro, Harlan's Holiday, and Azeri?

In the meantime, the Azeri fan club continues to grow. "Azerbaijan International" is a handsome quarterly magazine with world-wide distribution published in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Its content is primarily cultural, embracing all things Azeri, but to date "AI" has yet to cover any horse racing.

Until now. Azeri's picture, in all her Horse of the Year glory, will be in the next edition.

"There's about eight million people in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and another 25 to 30 million Azerbaijanis in Iran," said Betty Blair, the magazine's editor and publisher. "Add those living in Europe and the United States, and you've got close to 50 million people who call themselves Azeri."

But only one, very special racehorse.