08/06/2008 12:00AM

Azul Leon stirs talk of Favorite Trick


DEL MAR, Calif. - Poor Azul Leon. Unbeaten in two starts and bound for Sunday's $150,000 Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar, he is already one of the best 2-year-olds in California this summer.

And, he only needs to win six more consecutive races this year to keep pace with the best horse owned by his owner and breeder, Joseph LaCombe.

When a stable is best known for campaigning Favorite Trick, the 1997 Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old, standards are pretty high. Such success also provides a dose of realism.

"I've been in the business 13 years, and I know that what happened with Favorite Trick will never happen to me again," LaCombe said. "I don't know if it will happen in the business again."

That does not keep LaCombe, a 75-year-old resident of West Palm Beach, Fla., from buzzing about Azul Leon's potential.

The homebred colt will be favored in the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes and is a long-term prospect for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on Oct. 25. Favorite Trick won the BC Juvenile at Hollywood Park in 1997, his eighth consecutive win in a remarkable season.

When Favorite Trick earned the Horse of the Year title, he was the first 2-year-old to do so since Secretariat in 1972. No horse has done it since. That success gives LaCombe a unique perspective on Azul Leon's campaign.

"I'm not matching him up with Favorite Trick," LaCombe said. "He's good enough to win two out of two. He looks like he'll be a distance horse. I think we'll have some fun with him."

Azul Leon, by the highly promising young sire Lion Heart, beat maidens in his debut going 4 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park on May 8, closing nearly three lengths in the final furlong to win by a head. In the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship at six furlongs on July 5, Azul Leon was last of eight after a quarter-mile and rallied wide to take the lead in the final furlong. He pulled clear to win by four lengths.

The day after the Juvenile Championship, Joseph LaCombe Jr., the California-based son of Joseph LaCombe Sr., and trainer Doug O'Neill discussed Azul Leon's future. They said that Azul Leon would have only one start at Del Mar, in the Best Pal. The $250,000 Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 3 remains in question. The $250,000 Norfolk Breeders' Cup Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 28 is a likely prep for the BC Juvenile.

"We like to give them time since they're changing so much, growing physically and mentally," said Joseph LaCombe Jr., 52. "Hopefully, he'll continue on. He acts so mature for a 2-year-old.

"We'll see how this race goes," he said of the Best Pal. "You can get a little crazy when you get a good one. We want to save something and not just go for one race when there could be something better down the road."

Azul Leon is one of several stakes winners that the elder LaCombe has with O'Neill. Trick's Pic, the winner of the Buena Vista Handicap at Santa Anita last February, is returning from an ankle injury. Slew's Tiznow, unraced since finishing second in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall, is making a comeback this summer. Slew's Tizzy, the winner of the Lexington Stakes and Lone Star Derby in 2007, is also in O'Neill's barn.

Deputy Glitters, who won the 2006 Tampa Bay and Ohio derbies and was eighth behind Barbaro in the Kentucky Derby that year, was recently retired and will stand at stud in Florida next year.

LaCombe Jr., who lives in San Diego, has represented his father at the races this year in California, serving as his eyes and ears. A decade ago, when Favorite Trick was racing, the younger LaCombe was not as actively involved in the stable. Favorite Trick amassed 12 wins in 16 starts and earnings of $1,726,793 in a two-year career.

Favorite Trick was better at 2 than 3, even though he won four stakes at 3, including the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga. Through that campaign, Favorite Trick was eighth as the 4-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby behind Real Quiet and eighth as the 5-2 favorite in the Breeders' Cup Mile on turf at Churchill Downs in the final start of his career.

Favorite Trick was retired to stud in 1999, having been syndicated at 2. He stood in Kentucky, and later in Florida, before being sent to a farm in New Mexico. Sadly, Favorite Trick died in a barn fire in 2006.

"Favorite Trick was a special horse," LaCombe Jr. said at Del Mar last weekend. "He ran all kinds of distances and at a lot of different tracks. He was a smart horse. He'd do enough to win. He had to keep it up and take care of himself.

"This guy seems to have that kind of intelligence, too," he said of Azul Leon. "It's hard to win two in a row. To win eight in a row is incredible. That happens so infrequently."