Updated on 09/17/2011 11:10AM

Can't get near Azeri

Azeri, shown with jockey Mike Smith at the start of the Vanity Handicap, goes for her 11th straight victory in the Clement L. Hirsch.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The photograph of a horse's rear end hangs on the wall of trainer Laura de Seroux's office. Not just any horse's rear, mind you. It is the rump of reigning Horse of the Year Azeri, accompanied by a fitting caption:

"All you're gonna see in 2003."

Right so far. Three for three in 2003, Azeri hauls a 10-race win streak to Del Mar on Sunday, to meet four other fillies and mares in the Grade 2, $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at 1 1/16 miles. They are Got Koko, who swept the La Canada Series for 4-year-old fillies at Santa Anita; Sister Girl Blues, second to Azeri in the Grade 1 Vanity; and late-runners Angel Gift and Tropical Blossom. At 127 pounds, Azeri concedes nine to 19 pounds. Like it matters.

Azeri has been unstoppable since March 2002, an 18-month streak during which time she has won eight Grade 1's, two Grade 2's, and increased her earnings to more than $2.8 million. Azeri is 10th on the all-time list of females who have raced in North America, and a win Sunday would push Azeri into eighth. It also would extend her win streak to 11, continue her march toward another Breeders' Cup Distaff, and keep her name afloat for Horse of the Year honors.

"The most important thing right now is the earnings record, and obviously the streak goes along with it," de Seroux said Friday. "Horse of the Year is something that we just have to wait and see how the BC Classic pans out."

The earnings record is well within reach. Three more stakes wins, including the $2 million BC Distaff, would allow Azeri to surpass Japan's Seeking the Pearl ($4,021,716). Second-ranked Spain ($3,540,542) is the highest-ranked female who raced exclusively in the United States.

It is folly to predict defeat for Azeri, though Bruce Headley-trained Got Koko has a chance. Got Koko's jockey is Alex Solis, who engineered one of the biggest upsets in Del Mar history when he won the 1996 Pacific Classic on Dare and Go. Headley describes that race, Del Mar, and the Hirsch in rhymed verse:

"This is the place where champions fall, the mighty Cigar was the best of them all.

If Azeri doesn't do things just right, there will be a lot of crying in the middle of the night."

Headley probably should stick to training horses, which he is awfully good at. He said Got Koko is "as fit as anyone can make her off workouts." It will be her first start since March, and her first against Azeri. Got Koko has won 6 of 11 starts, and earned $470,946.

Other Hirsch entrants have realistic expectations. Tropical Blossom's trainer, Julio Canani, said, "We'd be very happy if she finished third; it would help her when she becomes a momma." Tropical Blossom has won 2 of 8, and gets in with 108 pounds under rider Julie Krone.

Angel Gift finished second to Azeri in the Hirsch last year, and jockey Jose Valdivia admits, "When you're going against Azeri, you thinking you're going to be second." Angel Gift was bred by the late Allen Paulson, and her owners - Ro and Ward Williford, and Rick and Dianna Strauss, were underbidders on Azeri. Retired jockey Eddie Delahoussaye bought an interest in the mare this summer.

Sister Girl Blues (109, including John McKee) will keep Azeri honest out front. It will be jockey Mike Smith's job to keep Azeri from boiling over. Smith has been aboard Azeri in all 14 starts (13 wins). Smith said, "You have to be really, really still with her. Any little movement at any time, she reacts to.

"You have to just be silent on her, let her come up out of the bridle, let her relax. Anytime you move, she jumps, so you have to be really careful. You have to do it the right way, finesse her back, a little give and take, just kind of talk her out of it. Back and forth, you don't just grab her, or she'll try to run off.

"It's easy for all of us to reach up and grab, and hit, and ride. [With Azeri] it's all finesse. Baby hands is what they call it, real light. She can go off at anytime. You know you're playing with a loaded gun."