05/25/2003 11:00PM

Great as Azeri is, she isn't Ruffian yet

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NEW YORK - It is unclear exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line, hyperbole seems to have become the descriptive method of choice in Thoroughbred racing.

Last week, Funny Cide's victory in the Preakness was alternately described as dominating and devastating, which is delusional. That is said without any slight to Funny Cide himself.

Take Peace Rules out of the Preakness - and with the way he ran, Peace Rules was a no-show at Pimlico - and Funny Cide would have been 1-5 against what else passed for Preakness competition. With Peace Rules out of the mix, Funny Cide was supposed to win that Preakness by about 10 lengths, and that's what he did. With Peace Rules a non-factor, Funny Cide won the Preakness like a 1-5 shot should. But the purveyors of hyperbole would have you believe that Funny Cide ran a Preakness to rival Secretariat's Belmont. Give me a break.

Then, this past Saturday, after Azeri ran a strong race to win the Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park - at actual odds of 1-5, I might add - all kinds of exaggerated plaudits were thrown in her direction.

By my reckoning, Hollywood Park track announcer Vic Stauffer got the ball rolling here with his call as Azeri charged toward the wire, positively comparing Azeri to Ruffian, Lady's Secret, and Personal Ensign. Now, I refuse to be painted into a corner as an Azeri basher, because that is just not true. Any horse who wins seven Grade 1 races, or improves her record to 12 wins from 13 starts, as Azeri did Saturday, is obviously a terrific horse. And I think Stauffer's race calling is pretty good, too. He has been knocked for being derivative, and maybe he is. But it is rare to find someone who isn't. One thing Stauffer has going for him that some other announcers with larger reputations no longer demonstrate is that he calls a race from the perspective of a handicapper. When Stauffer reacts with surprise with the way a race has unfolded or turned out, it generally is because the way that race developed, or ended, was a surprise. When Stauffer sounds impressed with a performance, it generally is because a performance was impressive.

But that wasn't exactly the case Saturday. Aside from whether it is even appropriate for a track announcer to editorialize during a race, Stauffer's comparisons of Azeri to Ruffian, Lady's Secret, and Personal Ensign sounded contrived. And then Azeri's connections, who have demonstrated absolute brilliance in their handling of the mare (for proof, consider how they changed plans and passed the Louisville Breeders' Cup Handicap so that Azeri could have more time to recover after her demanding comeback victory in Oaklawn's Apple Blossom) got swept up in the rush of the moment, and proclaimed Azeri to be one of the greatest mares of all time.

Azeri may very well be one of the greatest mares of all time, but Saturday's Milady was not the race that proved it. The distant second choice to her in the betting was Affluent, whom Azeri had humbled in each of the four previous times they met. The even more distant third choice was Enjoy. Enjoy had won three straight. But the first two of those victories came over questionable company in northern California, and this was her first start in a stakes race. I don't care how many challenges Azeri repulsed Saturday - she had to turn back a few and yet she still ran strongly through the wire - with as overmatched as her opposition was, she was supposed to wallop them.

As for the overwrought comparisons, let Azeri do this: Let her cover six furlongs in 1:08.60, and also stretch out beyond the 1 1/8 miles, her top distance so far, to win going 1 1/2 miles, humiliating a sensational if little known filly like Equal Change in the process. That's what Ruffian did. Let Azeri not only take on males, which is something she has yet to do, but also beat them, and in a spot as significant as the Whitney Handicap. That's what Lady's Secret did. And let Azeri face not just the typical fodder, but let her beat a Kentucky Derby winner. That's what Personal Ensign did.

Azeri is reigning Horse of the Year. I voted for her. She is a lock for induction into the Hall of Fame. When it is her time to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot, I will vote for her, if I still have a vote. And she is already considered by the majority to be great. To call her one of the ones, however, demands perspective, as well as the patience to await what she might yet do.