03/31/2004 1:00AM

Can Azeri still sparkle at age 6?

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Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Azeri, whose racing career appeared over because of an inflamed tendon, makes her first start Saturday for new trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - It's odd that a former Horse of the Year and winner of the last two runnings of the Apple Blossom Handicap comes into the Grade 1, $500,000 race with something to prove. But that is the case for Azeri, who enters Saturday's Apple Blossom off a loss and the longest layoff of her career. She also will be making her first start for new trainer D. Wayne Lukas, and will give weight to a star-studded group of fillies and mares that includes Island Fashion and Wild Spirit.

If Azeri, now 6, is up to the challenge she will become the first horse to win three runnings of the Apple Blossom. She shares the record for back-to-back wins with Paseana, who won the race in 1992-93.

The Apple Blossom is the co-feature on Saturday's card with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap. The races open the 31st annual Racing Festival of the South, during which nine stakes worth a record $2.6 million will be decided over the final week of the meet. The grand finale is the $1 million Arkansas Derby on closing day, April 10.

The purse for the derby was doubled this year in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Oaklawn. So far, the meet has delivered on its hype. Attendance and handle are up double digits over the same period from last year, and Oaklawn has not even entered its strongest business week. Last year during the six-day Festival, attendance was 143,890, and handle from all sources was $43 million.

Horses like Azeri drive those numbers. Voted Horse of the Year in 2002, she opened up her 2003 campaign at Oaklawn last year with a dramatic head win over Take Charge Lady in the Apple Blossom. The race is considered one of the most memorable in track history.

But this year, Azeri comes into the Apple Blossom under different circumstances. Last fall, her longtime trainer, Laura de Seroux, withdrew Azeri from the Breeders' Cup Distaff a week before the race, citing an inflamed left front tendon. She was retired and sent to Kentucky. But after separate clearances from two equine hospitals, Michael Paulson, who manages the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust which owns Azeri, decided to put the mare back in training. She was sent to Lukas on Dec. 28.

"Physically, I couldn't be happier with her," Lukas said Wednesday. "You have to understand that Mr. Paulson did due diligence to an extreme. He had two of the best clinics in the world check her top to bottom before I got her, and then throughout her training, she was periodically checked and passed with flying colors. She's very, very good. We have no reservations there at all about her.

"It's a great, great tribute to Michael Paulson that he would step up, put her out there for the public to enjoy, as well as himself and his family, and keep her racing another year."

Paulson said he wouldn't have put her back in training if he didn't think she still had the desire to race.

"She just loves to run, loves to compete, and we want to give her that opportunity," said Paulson. "She has plenty of time to have babies in the future."

Paulson chose Lukas to train Azeri after parting ways with de Seroux.

"Wayne's a Hall of Fame trainer, and he's had several of the top fillies and mares of all-time, like Serena's Song, Lady's Secret, and Winning Colors, and so I thought he was a good match," said Paulson. "Also, he has training [operations] on the West Coast, at Churchill, and Belmont."

Paulson would like to make some of the major East Coast races with Azeri this year. She has won just about all the West Coast has to offer, and was twice voted North America's champion older mare, in 2002 and 2003.

Lukas said Azeri will be sent to Churchill Downs following the Apple Blossom. "We're looking at a couple of those races on Derby Day or the day before, and then we hope to run her at Belmont and Saratoga."

Racing against males has not been ruled out, said Paulson. That would be a first for Azeri, a winner of 14 of 16 starts and $3,044,820. And it can be read as a sign of confidence that her connections feel she is the same mare who a year ago put on a dazzling performance in the Apple Blossom before going on to win the Milady, Vanity, and Clement Hirsch handicaps in Southern California.

Azeri closed out her 2003 campaign with a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sept. 28, making this layoff the longest of her career by about a month. She has been training sensationally for her comeback, and on March 27 worked a bullet five furlongs in 58 seconds at Santa Anita.

"She's unbelievable when she works," said Lukas. "She's really easy to train. She's absolutely so genuine, and she's got a super-good mind. She meets you at the door every morning, and she really wants to train. She's very competitive. She can't even have a routine gallop without spotting a horse out in front of her and trying to take dead aim on it."

Paulson has been pleased with how Azeri and Lukas have bonded. "She's taken right to him," he said. "He's a great guy. I enjoy working with him, and you can tell he really loves his horses. He takes her out, hand walks her, and lets her graze every day, so they've taken to each other."

Lukas, who flew from Los Angeles to Hot Springs with Azeri on Wednesday, let her graze for at least 45 minutes upon her arrival at Oaklawn. Lukas said he thinks Azeri could pass Spain as the all-time richest filly or mare in North America.

Lukas trained Spain, who earned $3,540,542. If her record is passed by Azeri, it would give the Paulson family a unique double. Allen Paulson bred Azeri as well as Cigar, who is the all-time leading money earner in North America with a bankroll of $9,999,815. Paulson also raced Cigar.

"Barring any setbacks, she's within range of going to the top of the mountain [among fillies and mares]," said Lukas. "I think Mr. Paulson's pride of ownership wants him to have her be number one because she's the number one kind of filly. She's just absolutely one of the really special ones to come along."

And so, at a time when many of her contemporaries have long since been retired, Azeri on Saturday will launch what her connections hope will be a third straight championship season. The first test comes in the Apple Blossom.