10/23/2002 11:00PM

BC Countdown - Distaff: Azeri makes Horse of the Year bid

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Since the Eclipse Awards were inaugurated in 1971, no filly has been named Horse of the Year without beating males. That is the history Azeri will be bucking should she win Saturday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff at Arlington Park.

First, though, she has to win the race. And while Azeri will be a short price to do so, she is part of a deep, talented field, and will have to run hard every step of the 1 1/8 miles to prevail.

Azeri and Imperial Gesture, the two best front-runners in the field, start from adjacent post positions in the Distaff, the first of the day's eight Breeders' Cup races. For either to win, they will have to put away a quality pace rival, then hold off challenges from the likes of Take Charge Lady, Summer Colony, and Farda Amiga, each of whom, like Azeri and Imperial Gesture, have won Grade 1 races this year.

Two divisional championships could be decided in this race. Azeri and Summer Colony are the top contenders for the Eclipse Award as champion older filly or mare. Farda Amiga, Imperial Gesture, and Take Charge Lady could claim the 3-year-old filly title with a victory.

With only eight runners, the Distaff equals the Turf as the day's smallest field. But in terms of depth, it might be the day's best race.

Azeri has won six consecutive races, including four Grade 1 stakes, and is 9 for 10 lifetime. Farda Amiga has won the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes, the year's premier Grade 1 races for 3-year-old fillies, in her last two starts. Imperial Gesture comes off consecutive victories in the Gazelle Handicap and Beldame Stakes, both Grade 1 events at Belmont Park. Summer Colony began the year by shipping west to knock off Azeri at Santa Anita, and has won two of her last three starts. Take Charge Lady this year has won 5 of 7, never has finished worse than second, and most recently beat older fillies and mares in the Spinster Stakes at Keeneland.

The other three runners will be significantly higher prices, but are not far off the top. Mandy's Gold most recently finished second to Imperial Gesture in the Beldame while beating Summer Colony. Starrer was just second to Azeri in the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap. And longshot Two Item Limit, though just 1 for 6 this year, outran her odds in last year's Distaff, finishing third at 32-1.

Azeri has a high cruising speed that has enabled her to beat overmatched rivals while spotting significant weight in recent races in California. Earlier this year, however, she proved she could stalk and finish in races such as the Apple Blossom Handicap and Santa Margarita Handicap. Her trainer, Laura de Seroux, believes that option will be available should Imperial Gesture be intent on leading early.

"She's been breaking better lately, and we've just gone to the lead," de Seroux said. "They've been out to beat her, and we don't want her to get boxed in."

De Seroux said Azeri has grown stronger as the year has progressed. "She's got more muscle on her," de Seroux said. "She's absolutely the strongest she's ever been."

Azeri benefits by the weight-for-age conditions of the Breeders' Cup. In her last start, for instance, she had to give Starrer 12 pounds (127-115), but this time, she, Starrer, and the other older fillies in the race, such as Summer Colony, all carry 123 pounds. The 3-year-old fillies - Farda Amiga, Imperial Gesture, and Take Charge Lady - carry 119.

Summer Colony benefits by a switch back to a race around two turns, a scenario at which she has proven far more effective than at one turn. Her trainer, Mark Hennig, believes Summer Colony was at a disadvantage in one-turn races at Belmont Park. Her victory over Azeri earlier this year, coupled with her strong performances around two turns in the Delaware Handicap and Personal Ensign Handicap, give Hennig confidence Summer Colony can win.

"She's doing super," Hennig said.

Take Charge Lady figures to get an ideal, stalking trip. She has fired every time this year. Handicappers, however, might ponder whether she can reproduce her performance from the Spinster; she is 4 for 4 at Keeneland, but has yet to race at Arlington. That doesn't mean she won't run as well here, but she has yet to prove it.

Imperial Gesture is leaving her favorite track, Belmont Park, where she has run three strong races during her career. She must prove she is as effective around two turns as one.

Farda Amiga has thrived under an unorthodox, well-spaced fall campaign mapped out by trainer Paulo Lobo. The Distaff will be her first start since the Alabama on Aug. 17, but Farda Amiga came off a longer layoff from the Kentucky Oaks to the Alabama, and she has not missed any training time leading up to this race.