03/19/2004 1:00AM

Fast work shows Azeri still has it


ARCADIA, Calif. - When Azeri first returned to the track around the new year, there was great skepticism over her chances of getting back to the races. But on Friday morning at Santa Anita she moved ever closer to her comeback, with a swift seven-furlong work in 1:24.60 that was three seconds faster than the second-best time at the distance.

"She galloped out a strong mile and wouldn't pull up," said D. Wayne Lukas, who now trains Azeri. "She's doing excellent. I couldn't be happier. She looks like she's right on schedule."

Azeri is scheduled to make her first start of the year in the Apple Blossom Handicap on April 3 at Oaklawn Park. Azeri won the Apple Blossom in 2002 en route to her Horse of the Year title, and she won it again last year, when she was named the champion older filly or mare.

Lukas said Friday's work, under exercise rider C.T. Lang, was the most serious Azeri has had and will be the most serious she has before the Apple Blossom. She is scheduled to leave for Oaklawn Park March 31.

"We let her work a little bit today," Lukas said. "We put a little bottom on her. She was full of herself. She's doing damn good. Her next work will be a little softer. She doesn't need to do much more. I think she's real fit."

Azeri was transferred to Lukas's care by Michael Paulson, who manages the Allen Paulson Living Trust, which owns Azeri. A 6-year-old mare, Azeri was trained previously by Laura de Seroux.

Lukas said Paulson deserves praise, rather than condemnation, for putting Azeri back in training.

"Here's a guy being a true sportsman," Lukas said. "He's giving the fans what they want, a superstar back on the racetrack. Obviously it's not a money issue with him. He's putting the horse back on the track, and the public is the beneficiary."

Lukas hopes to turn things around

Lukas, who is making plans to send horses out of town next month, said he will have a strong contingent at Keeneland. He probably cannot wait to leave Santa Anita.

This season has been fallow for Lukas. He is winless in 66 starts at Santa Anita and has had just 11 of his runners finish in the money. Heading into the weekend, he has won with just four of 91 starters nationally.

"If we had a bunch of 5-2 or 3-1 shots and they were running like that, you'd have to be concerned. But when you're sending 25-1 shots over there, you have to be realistic," Lukas said. "I don't wake up trying to prove I can train anymore. We've just got some good-looking horses that are slow."

Lukas annually has strong Keeneland meets, and he expects similar results this year.

"Keeneland's always been a good meet for us," he said. "We should come out strong there."

CHRB investigators at Cerin's barn

A phalanx of investigators from the California Horse Racing Board made a sweep of trainer Vladimir Cerin's barn at Santa Anita on Friday morning. At the end of training hours, five investigators headed back to their office, with one, Frank Fink, carrying a box containing several items.

Mike Kilpack, who accompanied Fink and is the southern regional supervisor for the CHRB, said he could not comment on why the investigators went to Cerin's barn Friday morning.

Asked if he could not comment because of an ongoing investigation, Kilpack politely replied, "I can't comment on that, either."

Both Pete Pedersen, a steward at Santa Anita, and Darrel McHargue, a steward at Golden Gate Fields, said they were unaware of the barn search. Stewards usually do not get involved in matters such as this, however, unless the CHRB files a formal complaint against the trainer.

No changes regarding Valenzuela

Kilpack has also been a point man regarding the expected attempt of jockey Patrick Valenzuela to apply for reinstatement. Valenzuela was suspended by Santa Anita's stewards two months ago after failing to show up for a mandatory drug test.

Valenzuela must formally apply for reinstatement before he can even been considered for re-licensing. But if he does apply, or is granted a license, the CHRB has the option of filing a formal complaint for non-compliance with terms of his provisional license, which included the mandatory tests.

"He's suspended. We can't file a complaint against someone who doesn't have a license," Kilpack said. "He needs to apply for a fitness hearing. It's a lot like a groom who was suspended for a year for cocaine, for instance. Basically, you need to show you have been rehabbing. When Patrick wants to do it, we'll schedule a hearing on our court calendar. We're just waiting for him."

Buffythecenterfold heading to turf

Trainer Mel Stute has decided to expose Buffythecenterfold to the turf for her next start, in the $100,000 Las Cienegas Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs on April 4. In her most recent start, Buffythecenterfold finished second to Ema Bovary in the Las Flores Handicap on Feb. 22. She came back to work a swift five furlongs in 59.80 seconds Friday. The time equaled the third best of 44 at the distance.

"She was just breezing," Stute said.

Buffythecenterfold has turned in several sharp performances in recent months, but has had the misfortune of hooking the likes of Ema Bovary and Santa Anita Handicap runner-up Island Fashion.

"That's the best filly in the country, the one who ran second in the Santa Anita Handicap," Stute said.

Ticker Tape gets Mambo Slew this time

Ticker Tape gave trainer Jim Cassidy and owner Jim Ford stakes victories on consecutive days when she ran down favored Mambo Slew to capture Thursday's $75,800 China Doll Stakes.

Ticker Tape ($12), who was coupled with Betty's Tribute, was sent off as the third choice at 5-1. She loomed just behind the early leaders under jockey Kent Desormeaux, was tipped outside for the stretch drive, and got up to win by three-quarters of a length.

Mambo Slew, who had defeated Ticker Tape in their two prior meetings and was sent off at 8-5, finished 1 1/2 lengths in front of third-place Amorama, who closed furiously from last.

Ticker Tape covered one mile on firm turf in 1:36.22. She has now won three times in 10 starts.

A daughter of Royal Applause, Ticker Tape made her first seven starts in Great Britain. In her two previous races in this country, she was second to Mambo Slew in both the Miesque Stakes at Hollywood Park in November and the Blue Norther at Santa Anita on Jan. 14.

Ford owns Ticker Tape, a 3-year-old filly, in a partnership. He and Cassidy also won Wednesday's Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds with the longshot Unrivalled.

Stakes next for Fabulous Groom

Fabulous Groom, a European import who proved a sharp winner against allowance company in a downhill turf sprint last weekend, will stretch out around two turns and compete in a stakes race in his next start, according to his trainer, Julio Canani.

Fabulous Groom came to Canani's barn last fall and was being pointed to the Generous Stakes at Hollywood Park, but Fabulous Groom was kept out of that race and given additional time to acclimate.

"He took a long time because he was growing," Canani said. "He had a lot of baby fat. He looked like he was just beginning to grow. We backed off and just galloped, galloped while he got bigger and muscled up. He'll run again in about six weeks."