04/01/2002 12:00AM

Best in the West, Azeri next takes on beasts of the East


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Azeri, who shot to the top of her division on the West Coast last month, winning the Grade 1 Santa Margarita for fillies and mares at Santa Anita, will take on the best of the East in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park Saturday, when she meets Miss Linda and Fleet Renee.

The 1 1/16-mile race is on the same program as the Grade 1, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap for the first time. The move is designed to give the Apple Blossom, held last year on a Sunday, a bigger viewing audience and the timing could not be better.

The Apple Blossom is shaping up to be outstanding. In addition to Azeri, Miss Linda, and Fleet Renee - each ranked among the top four older females in the country by Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker - the race also is expected to draw Spain, who with a victory would surpass Serena's Song as the all-time winningest female by earnings. Also in the race are Affluent, the co-highweight at 118 pounds with Miss Linda, Atelier, Verruma, and possibly Caressing.

In the 1 1/8-mile Oaklawn Handicap, Mr Ross, second in the race last year, will be the 118-pound starting highweight. He is expected to be joined by at least seven others, including Kudos, Crafty Shaw, Graeme Hall, Dollar Bill, Bowman's Band, Remington Rock, Secret Romeo, and possibly Duckhorn and Maysville Slew.

Azeri, a winner of four races in five starts, earned a 110 Beyer Speed Figure for her three-length victory over Spain in the Santa Margarita on March 10. She has flourished since, which prompted trainer Laura de Seroux to steer her toward the Apple Blossom. "She came out of the Santa Margarita so well, I couldn't force myself to put her away for a break now," said de Seroux.

In a span of five months, Azeri has has gone from a maiden winner at six furlongs to a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles. De Seroux said attitude and stride have been the keys to Azeri's rapid development.

"She's an amazing athlete," said de Seroux. "I don't like to be bullish and boast, but I don't think there's anything she can't do."

Mike Smith, who has been aboard Azeri for owner Allen Paulson Living Trust in each of her starts, has the mount. Azeri was to be flown in from her San Luis Rey Downs base in Southern California on Thursday, and will be accompanied on the flight by de Seroux.

Day coming in to ride Spain

Pat Day will be in town Saturday to ride , a winner of seven races and $3,067,040 who is bidding to surpass the record $3,283,388 earned Serena's Song.

Day won a record 12 riding titles at Oaklawn between 1983 and 1994.

Other riders expected to travel in from out of town include Jorge Chavez, who has the mount on Dollar Bill; Edgar Prado, who will ride Bowman's Band; John Velazquez, who has the mount on Graeme Hall; and Eddie Delahoussaye, the regular rider of Affluent.

Beau's Town-King's Command II?

Beau's Town and Kings Command, who won the $50,000 Hot Springs Stakes in a dead-heat last Saturday, are both under consideration for the Grade 2, $150,000 Churchill Downs Handicap at seven furlongs May 4. The connections of Beau's Town are also looking at the $75,000 Crescent Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs the same day, at Lone Star Park.

Beau's Town gave leading trainer Cole Norman his first Oaklawn Park stakes win, while Kings Command was the fourth Hot Springs Stakes winner saddled by trainer Bob Holthus.

Beau's Town was one of the five winners ridden by jockey Anthony Lovato on Saturday, with four of them trained by Norman.

McDowell tops in Arkansas

McDowell Farm was honored as the Arkansas Thoroughbred Breeder's and Horsemen's Association breeder of the year at a banquet Friday. It was the first time the farm had been honored, and it was a fitting because about an hour before the banquet began, a McDowell-bred horse won the nightcap at Oaklawn.

The next day, the McDowell-bred Supreme Discovery remained perfect in three career starts, winning the $50,000 Rainbow Miss.

McDowell's registered Arkansas-bred runners earned $570,603 in North America last year to win the award over runner-up Jon L. Starr.

* Don'timpressmemuch will have to beat Princess Jen to win her fifth consecutive race in the nightcap Wednesday, a six-furlong allowance for fillies and mares that also drew multiple stakes winner Naturalingredients.