04/06/2003 11:00PM

Defining win for champion Azeri

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NEW YORK - It wasn't the Breeders' Cup Distaff, a championship event at the end of the season. It was the start of a championship defense. It wasn't run in the gloom and mud of a fall afternoon. It was run in the sunshine of spring. It wasn't a victory over a filly who had made history winning the Kentucky Derby. It was a victory over a filly who is just very good. It wasn't the culmination of a perfect career. It was the continuation of a career that has been almost perfect.

Nevertheless, it was eerie how Azeri's getting up to win Saturday's Apple Blossom at Oaklawn over Take Charge Lady was reminiscent of Personal Ensign's getting up to win one of the great races, the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs, over Winning Colors.

Like Personal Ensign in that final race of her Hall of Fame career, Azeri, in her first start since being voted the 2002 Horse of the Year, never truly looked like a winner. Yet, like the great ones, she managed to turn apparent defeat into victory.

The trouble for Azeri started once the gate for the Apple Blossom opened. She broke a step slowly, and Take Charge Lady, a multiple Grade 1 winner, came out right on top. With Azeri immediately having to play catch up, Take Charge Lady had the luxury of slowing the pace. That put Azeri in a pocket behind the leaders, and as is her habit when she's not on the lead, she was a bit rank.

It wasn't until she was steered to the outside late on the backstretch that Azeri began to settle. Once she did, she was sent up four wide on the far turn and was asked to move into the hottest part of the pace, a third quarter-mile run in 23.68 seconds. Not surprisingly, Take Charge Lady was able to repel that bid, and when Take Charge Lady re-broke in upper stretch, it looked like she was going to hand Azeri a daylight defeat.

Then, in the final stages of the Apple Blossom, Azeri showed more than she had in any of her previous 10 victories, including her Horse of the Year-clinching Breeders' Cup Distaff. She surged. This wasn't a case of Take Charge Lady falling apart late. In fact, Take Charge Lady was still going relatively strongly. No, Azeri surged. She surged like Personal Ensign surged at the end of the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff. It was as if Azeri knew where the wire was, and knew even better that she wanted to get there first.

No matter what Azeri does from this point, she has provided one of those special racing moments that will never be forgotten. It may not be in the same class as Secretariat's Belmont Stakes, but what is? It is, however, in the same neighborhood as Affirmed and Alydar's Belmont, the Jockey Club Gold Cup that Seattle Slew should have won, Forego's decision over Honest Pleasure in the Marlboro Cup, and the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff. These glimpses of greatness are what makes this game worthwhile.

There was talk before the Apple Blossom that Azeri may run back in the Louisville Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks Day. But, considering how demanding Azeri's comeback must have been, I wouldn't be surprised if trainer Laura de Seroux, who deserves every ounce of credit she gets for her handling of this mare, gives her extra time to recover.

Dynever, star of Derby preps

There were also three preps for the Kentucky Derby Saturday, and the one that will likely have the least impact on the Derby was the stage for the most impressive performance. That was Gulfstream's Aventura, in which Dynever proved he is the real deal by successfully making the jump from a maiden win.

Granted, Dynever got a favorable pace set up to rally into, and the horse he outgamed in the stretch, Supah Blitz, may well be a closing sprinter rather than a two-turn horse. Still, you can't help but love the way Dynever accelerated late and the way he ran through the wire. However, having only begun his career in February, and without a cent in graded stakes earnings, Dynever is not being considered for the Derby, at least not yet.

Conversely, there was little to love about the Santa Anita Derby, even though it looked, on paper, to be by far the strongest of Saturday's Derby preps. As ESPN's excellent commentator Randy Moss correctly pointed out, they walked home in the Santa Anita Derby, with the final three furlongs run in 39.20 seconds. No wonder longshot Indian Express seemed to hang in so gamely, losing narrowly to Buddy Gil, who capitalized on the slow finish by gaining 2 3/4 lengths in the last three-eighths of a mile. And, how off his game was Atswhatimtalknbout? He could gain only a little more than three lengths into that slow final three furlongs.

For purposes of comparison, the final three furlongs of the Illinois Derby went in 38.75, and that over a Hawthorne track that appeared considerably deeper than the track at Santa Anita. Moreover, Ten Most Wanted, who gained 3 1/2 lengths through the final three furlongs, was blocked from midway on the far turn to upper stretch. So, it is reasonable to think he could have come home faster with a cleaner trip.