09/29/2002 11:00PM

De Seroux's breakthrough year just getting started

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The first nine months of the year have produced 14 stakes victories, including seven Grade 1 wins, for trainer Laura de Seroux, whose breakout year could reach even greater heights over the next month.

Beginning with heavily favored Azeri in Wednesday's Grade 2, $200,000 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, de Seroux, 50, will take aim at several major races over the next 3 1/2 weeks, highlighted by the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships on Oct. 26 at Arlington Park.

Azeri is a top contender in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff. And even though de Seroux last week was forced to retire her outstanding female turf runner, Astra, she still has a strong candidate for the $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare turf in Dublino, the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks winner. De Seroux also will send out Little Treasure, the winner of Arlington's Pucker Up Handicap, in the Grade 1, $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup on Oct. 12 at Keeneland.

"I haven't been keeping a running tally, but it feels good," de Seroux said Monday from San Luis Rey Downs training center, where she is based.

Even Astra's retirement was not viewed as something to lament. "I'm happy for Astra. It was time for her to be left alone," de Seroux said. "I'm a positive thinker, and something positive will come out of it. We're now pointing Dublino for that Breeders' Cup race, we've got Little Treasure going in Dublino's place to the Queen Elizabeth, and we just got a nice 2-year-old colt from France named Just Wonder."

Just Wonder, a son of Hernando, has only a maiden victory, but will be pointed for the Generous Stakes this fall at Hollywood Park. "He looks like any kind of horse," de Seroux said.

If so, he should fit right in at a barn that has quite quickly become one of the leading forces on the West Coast. And de Seroux's scope is expanding. She has shrewdly employed a divide-and-conquer approach with the 3-year-old turf fillies Dublino and Little Treasure, keeping them on separate courses. Astra's retirement forced a movement of those chess pieces, but even before that, de Seroux did some extensive homework while at the Keeneland yearling sales that convinced her to send Little Treasure there.

"I walked the course. It's beautiful, sand-based, drains well when it gets a lot of water. And it's only three-sixteenths of a mile from the last turn to the finish. When you turn the corner, you're practically home. I think it will favor a filly who can be close to the pace. Because of its speed and texture, I think Little Treasure will like it," de Seroux explained. "Dublino can handle soft turf, and she might get that at Arlington."

De Seroux has between 45 and 50 horses at San Luis Rey Downs, but the unquestioned star of the barn this year has been Azeri. A multiple Grade 1 winner, Azeri has been a top-ranked older filly or mare in the country most of the year. She has lost just once, to Summer Colony, but has rattled off several impressive victories since that setback.

Azeri is doing "fantastic," de Seroux said. She has grown stronger as the year has progressed, a combination of maturity and having her recent races well spaced. She was sent to Santa Anita over the weekend in order to have two days of schooling in the saddling paddock on Monday and Tuesday in preparation for Wednesday's race. When Mike Smith, her jockey, saw her at Santa Anita, he was so impressed with her maturity over the past month he said to de Seroux, "What are you feeding her?"

On Wednesday, Azeri will try to make short work of her rivals in the Lady's Secret. For de Seroux, that would be a delicious appetizer to what could be a month-long feast.