10/09/2003 12:00AM

Distaff looks to be a highlight again


ELMONT, N.Y. - The Distaff, first of the Breeders Cup races to be presented at Santa Anita on Oct. 25, may also be the most attractive contest on the program, as it has been so frequently in the past.

Azeri, last year's Distaff winner and the champion of her division, is training forwardly again after beating back a respiratory infection which led to her defeat in the recent Lady's Secret Handicap at Oak Tree, her first loss following 11 consecutive victories.

"She appears to have turned the corner," trainer Laura de Seroux said from her headquarters at the San Luis Rey training center. "She was quite bright and on the muscle today, which had not been the case after being aggressively treated with antibiotics following her recent loss. She has been so consistent for a long period of time, and it was obvious something was wrong with her in the Lady's Secret. But it appears she is back to her old self, and that was very good."

Bobby Frankel, who is enjoying a record-breaking season, may start two in the Distaff, and he assesses Sightseek, the Beldame winner, and Wild Spirit, the Ruffian winner, as the best racemares he has ever had. The list includes You, winner of over $2 million; Possibly Perfect, the Yellow Ribbon winner; Keeper Hill, the Spinster winner; and many more of this quality.

"Sightseek and Wild Spirit are great fillies," he said. "I've had Sightseek from the beginning, and she has been remarkably consistent. She's run 12 times, winning eight with four seconds. She's not only held her form, I honestly believe she is getting better. Wild Spirit is not eligible to the Breeders Cup and must be supplemented. A decision from her owners is due shortly."

Got Koko, who upset Azeri in the Lady's Secret, is another top prospect for the Distaff. So is Take Charge Lady, who won the Spinster at Keeneland for the second consecutive year. The Distaff has always attracted quality fields and the resulting competition has been special.

How special? The 1988 Distaff is regarded by many as the greatest Breeders' Cup race ever run. Personal Ensign, the favorite, came to the Distaff undefeated after 12 starts and if she won, would be the first major American horse with a spotless career record since Colin in 1908. Her principal opponent was the Kentucky Derby winner, Winning Colors.

Winning Colors' sensational speed took her to an early lead under Gary Stevens and she kept improving her position. Personal Ensign, racing off the pace, picked up the tempo under Randy Romero, but apparently in a lost cause. She was third in midstretch, flew past the hard-hitting Goodbye Halo and still appeared to have no chance. Winning Colors wasn't stopping but Personal Ensign had a date with destiny and got up in the last stride to win by a nose. How was that for a farewell performance?

The moment was almost as dramatic in the Distaff of 1994, which was expected to go to the 19-10 favorite, Sky Beauty, a daughter of Blushing Groom who raced for the colorful Georgia Hofmann. Beginning with the Vagrancy in early May, she ran off five consecutive stakes victories under the direction of trainer Allen Jerkens. Somewhat less successful was One Dreamer, a Relaunch filly owned and bred by Leonard Lavin. Lavin is chairman of the board of the Alberto Culver Company, which sponsored the Distaff that year. As the chief executive of his company, Lavin was invariably the first man to congratulate the winning owners after the running of t he Distaff.

One Dreamer, at 47-1 got off to a good start in the Distaff. With Gary Stevens sitting chilly in the saddle, One Dreamer led every step of the way and won by a neck over the third choice, Heavenly Prize. Lavin once again headed for the winner's circle but this time to accept the trophy he usually presents.