07/28/2004 11:00PM

Can a champ find her way home?

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DEL MAR, Calif. - It has become a national pastime, all this speculation over why the once-invincible 2002 Horse of the Year, Azeri, has suddenly fallen victim to a three-race losing streak. But that goes with the territory. Win 11 races in a row at the top of the game and expectations tend to elevate.

One thing is irrefutable. Azeri stopped winning races when she stopped training in California. This may be sheer coincidence, of course. There have been other reasons put forth for her three straight losses in Kentucky and New York, among them a slow break, a large weight spread, a deep track, a bad trip, horsing, bleeding, and an unreported alien abduction (oops, scratch that last one).

Azeri's owner, Michael Paulson, has provided his mare with the best training and diagnostic care money can buy. She has been scoped, scanned, and X-rayed until there is nothing left to the imagination. That leaves only the intangibles, those mystifying forces that render Thoroughbred racing an eternal puzzle wrapped inside an enigma.

So let's think outside the box. There must be other, more obscure reasons that Azeri has fallen on such hard times since being torn from the bosom of Mother California. How about . . .

* That pesky three-hour time change.

* Someone's slipping grits into her mash.

* The buildings really are taller in New York, and very scary.

* She longs for the thrill of a good, old-fashioned earthquake.

* Bitter Eastern fans keep calling her "Arazi" and demanding their Derby money back.

There is nothing in the rule book that says a good horse has to stay good forever. Minor injuries, wear and tear, and psychological pressure all take their toll over time. Human athletes face the same questions of longevity, the notion of when to call it quits. The difference, obviously, is that a Thoroughbred must rely on its handlers to get the message.

There have been any number of great horses who hung around too long. Dahlia was perhaps the finest mare of her generation, and yet her owner and trainer - Nelson Bunker Hunt and Charlie Whittingham - sent her out for six fruitless, inartistic races during the last half of 1976 that added nothing to an otherwise grand career.

It can be argued that Straight Deal stuck around too long as well, winning only two allowance races in 22 starts in 1968, the year after she reigned as North America's champion older mare. After three more losses in 1969 she was mercifully retired by Hirsch Jacobs.

Paulson contemplated retirement for Azeri last fall, then change his mind and his trainer - from Laura de Seroux to D. Wayne Lukas - and was rewarded with her brilliant victory in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park in April. Azeri won that race off her California training with Lukas at Santa Anita.

In the training profession, picking up where someone else left off is usually a thankless task, which is the challenge Lukas is facing with Azeri. In the past, Lukas has fashioned great second-half careers for such outstanding runners as Criminal Type and Steinlen. With Azeri, he was given the goal of attaining new heights, defeating males, winning in New York.

"I did a lot of research on Wayne Lukas," Paulson said. "If you look at his history with some of the top fillies and mares of all time, this guy knows how to handle a champion."

In fact, Lukas is the only modern-day trainer whose work has placed as many as three mares in the Hall of Fame, a fact that will surely be celebrated when he makes the keynote address at this summer's Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Saratoga Springs.

Lukas supervised the training of Lady's Secret, Winning Colors, and Serena's Song, from start to finish, compiling an enviable array of stakes wins and championships. It is the endgames, however, of those great mares that sometimes nags the memory.

Serena's Song, though still in solid form, lost the last seven races of her career, nobly soldiering on under a variety of conditions. Winning Colors earned a permanent place in history when she won the 1988 Kentucky Derby and flashed that brilliance again when edged by Personal Ensign that fall in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. But the fact remains that in the 18 months following her Derby victory, Winning Colors started 12 times and won only twice: an allowance event at Saratoga and a small stakes race at Turfway Park.

As for Lady's Secret, the little gray mare was voted Horse of the Year for 1986 and could have left the stage as one of the all-time greats. Instead, she returned at age 6, won two allowance races in New Jersey, finished second in the Molly Pitcher and up the track in the Donn against males before bolting and pulling up in her final start at Saratoga.

On Sunday, Azeri is scheduled to run again in the Go for Wand Handicap at Saratoga.

"I've said from the beginning, we'd take just one race at a time, evaluate the situation, and see what's best," Paulson said.

That's good to hear, and here's hoping the old Azeri returns. But if she does not, it might be time to celebrate her place in the sport and say good-bye. Or reapply for California citizenship.