03/20/2002 1:00AM

Azillion's people thinking Eastern exposure will pay off


FLORENCE, Ky. - Even though Azillion wasn't able to win a first-level allowance race in two tries in Southern California, trainer Bob Hess Jr. thought the time would come when would deserve a trip to an out-of-town stakes race.

Indeed, when he runs Saturday in the $500,000 Lane's End Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, Azillion will be embarking on a somewhat diversionary path toward the Triple Crown. Hess believes Azillion, an Irish-bred colt based at Santa Anita, has the running style to be a major factor in races outside of his home circuit.

"He might not have the absolute quicks to win here in California," Hess said Wednesday morning by phone. "To this point, he's demonstrated a style more effective back East. We've always hoped he'd be a horse for the Triple Crown, or at least the kind who could run well in races like the Spiral or the Lone Star Derby.

"He'd really have to come up with an A-plus effort for us to consider the Kentucky Derby for him. What I'd actually like to have happen is use the Turfway and Lone Star races toward the Belmont."

Hess, on behalf of owners Jim Sciabelli, Jack Cohen, and Tom Harris, bought Azillion, an Alzao colt, last year after he won one of three starts in Ireland. In both starts for Hess, he posted third-place finishes in allowance routes this winter at Santa Anita.

"We're trying to get a reading on where this horse belongs and whether he can do better away from here," said Hess. "He's shown us he could be a top horse, and now's the time to go find out."

Azillion is one of eight 3-year-olds expected for the 31st running of the Grade 2, 1 1/8-mile Spiral, the annual showcase race at Turfway. With jockeys, this is the expected field: Azillion, Mike Smith; Benny the Hawk, Brian Peck; Gold Dollar, Shaun Bridgmohan; My Man Ryan, Mike Luzzi; Perfect Drift, Eddie Delahoussaye; Request for Parole, Pat Day; Saratoga Blues, Mario Pino; and Straight Gin, Jorge Chavez.

The Spiral will be televised on a delayed basis on ESPN2 on a one-hour program that begins at 6:30 p.m. Eastern. Taped footage of the UAE Derby also will be included.

Spiral entries were to be drawn Thursday at a press lunch at the track.

Weekend weather a concern

Few people who were here four years ago can forget how the Spiral, then known as the Jim Beam Stakes, was postponed by one day because of a power outage. Severe winds blew down an electrical support pole in a parking lot, forcing the Beam to be run the following day.

Not that any such postponement is likely for Saturday, but a couple of ominous signs have arisen in recent weeks. On March 9, racing was canceled here after three races when high winds created havoc, including a portion of the massive V.I.P. tent being blown apart and smack-dab onto the racetrack in midstretch.

And while recent heavy rains have created flood-stage conditions throughout the tri-state region of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, the very wet was supposed to give way to the very cold this weekend. Forecasters have called for a low of 17 degrees early Friday, meaning the Turfway surface could be subjected to the freeze-and-thaw conditions that historically have been the primary source of cancellations here.

Turfway officials, however, are saying they are extremely determined to have a safe racetrack ready for their biggest day of the year.

"We have made preparations well in advance," said track president Bob Elliston, noting that training was not permitted Wednesday so as to prevent excess moisture from seeping into a "sealed" racetrack. "Obviously we are going to avail ourselves to every resource possible to have a safe track for Spiral Day."

Bourbonette tops undercard

As always, the Spiral undercard will be dotted with stakes races. The richest - and apparently the deepest - of the four undercard stakes is the $150,000 Bourbonette, a one-mile race for 3-year-old fillies.

Take the Cake, winner of the Forward Gal Stakes, and Colonial Glitter, runner-up in the Davona Dale Stakes, are two recent arrivals from Gulfstream Park expected to head the Bourbonette. Other top contenders include Cobblestone Road, Ideveter, and Southey.

Stakes coordinator Randy Wehrman said Wednesday that a full field of 12 is possible, with other starters including Art Fair, Madame X Ski, Raise a Roar, Skorch, and There Runs Hattie.

The $100,000 Rushaway, a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-old colts and geldings, also will have a large field. Wehrman has listed at least 11 possibles, with American Style, Mr. Mellon, and Derby Drive among the likely favorites.

Two $60,000 sprints, the Queen and Hansel, also will be run. The Queen should have a solid field led by City Fair and Far Sighted Sal, but the Hansel, led by Expected Program, is coming up with a short cast.

None of the other seven races on the 12-race card will be for claiming horses, a Turfway tradition exercised on Spiral Day in the spring and Kentucky Cup Day in the fall.

One of the relatively new traditions of Spiral Day is the early opening of the racetrack gates so that early rising or hard-core horseplayers can watch and wager on the Dubai World Cup undercard simulcasts from Nad Al Sheba.

Turfway will open at 9:30 a.m. Saturday so that fans can bet on the following races from Dubai, which begin at 10: the Sheema Classic, the Golden Shaheen, the Duty Free, and the World Cup.

First post for the Turfway card is noon. The Dubai World Cup is set for 12:40.

Best in fields to be honored

The winningest owner, trainer, and jockey on the Kentucky circuit in 2001 will be honored after the third race Saturday in annual awards presentations by the Kentucky Thoroughbred Media.

Owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, trainer Bernie Flint, and jockey Jon Court will be recognized for leading their respective categories in wins last year at the five Kentucky tracks: Turfway, Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs.