06/18/2003 11:00PM

Give star like Azeri a hand


HOLLYWOOD PARK, Calif. - The idea of the sure thing taunts racetrackers to distraction. Just one in a lifetime, please let it happen. Fish in a barrel, brick through a window, a fat pitch over the center of the plate.

Azeri in the Vanity Handicap Saturday at Hollywood Park.

Of course, there is no such thing. The sure thing is racing's Sasquatch, rumored to roam the dark part of the forest, allowing only an occasional, teasing glimpse. Romance is great and legends are grand. But sometimes it just comes down to hard-boiled fact. Man o' War lost. Native Dancer lost. Secretariat lost. Unless their names are Colin or Personal Ensign - clearly visitors from another planet - they all lose eventually.

In fairness, the Vanity does not look like "eventually" for Azeri. Historically significant upsets, at least most of the time, can be explained away by a combination of variables. More often than not, they occur when a great champion is trying to do something for the first time. Secretariat, for example, lost the first time he raced beyond 8 1/2 furlongs. He also lost the first time he faced older horses. Not that he ever needed an excuse.

There have been a handful of dumbfounding shockers. Fans of the incomparable Swaps still wake up in a cold sweat thinking about the 1956 Californian when their champ was cruising home at 3-10, with a fat lead at the eighth pole and Bill Shoemaker counting his dough.

Then Porterhouse and Milo Valenzuela came flying to beat them by a head. Shoemaker admitted that he geared down too soon, which was hard to swallow, but no other answer was offered. Swaps went on to win his next five races that summer at Hollywood, all in record time.

In 1968, at Santa Anita Park, reigning Horse of the Year Damascus was having his way in races like the Malibu and the San Fernando. For the Strub, at 1 1/4 miles, he was 1-5 and rightfully so. True, the track was wet and slow, but Damascus handled bad tracks in the Travers, Bay Shore, and Dwyer. And, yes, Shoemaker was injured, but his sub, Ron Turcotte, had won with Damascus before. So why did Most Host beat Damascus by a head?

Azeri will be doing absolutely nothing different in the Vanity from what she has done before. The reigning Horse of the Year, with nine straight wins to her credit, will be swaddled in cozy familiarity. She gets her track, her weather, her jockey, and her distance. There are no hotshots coming to town with something to prove. And if the other trainers are waiting for Laura de Seroux to make a mistake with the preparation of her champion, they'd better be patient. It hasn't happened yet.

As for weight - horse puckey. At 127 pounds, Azeri carries the same amount as she did last October in the Lady's Secret Handicap, when she danced circles around a good filly like Starrer. Opposing trainers can cling to the hope that a sizeable weight spread will reel Azeri back to the pack. But they know. They know. If Azeri does not win, a detailed explanation will be required.

"If her gates open on time, it seems almost impossible to beat her," said trainer Doug O'Neill, who will send out the Argentine filly Meguial in the Vanity. At 110 pounds, comprised mainly of Felipe Martinez, Meguial will be the lightweight of the field.

"Azeri is a way better filly than our filly," O'Neill conceded. "But 17 pounds - that's a lot of weight. One thing for sure, our filly will be closing at the end. She runs best when she has a target. Unfortunately, her target might be a little 'P' on the back of the Paulson silks way off in the distance."

Trainer Julio Canani is no stranger to upsets. He once won a Santa Anita Handicap with a 50-1 shot. In the Milady Handicap, Azeri's previous appearance, Canani was happy with a third-place finish from the lightly raced Tropical Blossom. This time around she has a right improve, or Azeri might have a bad day, or . . .

"Don't get me dreaming," Canani protested. "I just want to be third again."

Still, Canani has run horses before that he thought could not possibly lose, and yet they did. Every trainer has experience choking down that bitter pill.

"Yeah, that's true," Canani said. "But when it happened I didn't have a horse like Azeri. This is a real champion. A mare like her comes around maybe once in a hundred years. And that lady has done a great job with her. She's not going to start her if there is even a little bit wrong."

So there it is. If Azeri shows up, Azeri can't lose. So why even bother to run the race?

Here's why. Because sometimes, even in the arena of competition, the pleasure comes from the performance as much as it does from the gambled results. So, if the Vanity unfolds as expected, feel free to start the applause at the eighth pole.