12/04/2003 12:00AM

Great run ends - what next?


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If your first brush with baseball came at the sixth game of the 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and the Yankees, you have a pretty good idea of how Laura de Seroux must feel. Subsequent experience, no matter the quality, tends toward the anticlimactic.

De Seroux, who began training in 1999, said goodbye to the best horse she will ever train in October. That is when Azeri was retired with the beginning of what could have become a serious tendon injury, following her uncharacteristically dull performance in the Lady's Secret Handicap on Sept. 28 at Santa Anita Park.

Azeri is at Ashford Stud now in Kentucky, where she is winding down in preparation for what promises to be an exciting career as a broodmare. Owner Michael Paulson has yet to name her first partner, but chances are the boys are starting to line up at the farm gates.

If she is ever to train a better racehorse than Azeri, de Seroux must discover a runner willing to go for 18 months and a dozen starts without a defeat, maintaining an incredible level of health and soundness while competing against the best the division has to offer. When all is said and done, Azeri will be remembered as a Horse of the Year, a Breeders' Cup winner, and a two-time champion who never asked for a day off until the very end.

"We cherished every moment she was here," de Seroux said this week from her base at San Luis Rey Downs training center. "We knew that when it was over it would be back to being a normal racing stable with some nice horses and trying to be competitive.

"I'm content with what we did with Azeri," she added. "I was just glad we found out what was wrong with her."

Since she values her mental health, de Seroux has no delusions there ever will be another Azeri in her life. These days she is soldiering on, trying to fill the huge void left by Azeri with a collection of recent acquisitions from sources in Europe and South America.

Among them are French-raced Alberto Giacometti, the son of Sadler's Wells who got a rough introduction to American racing last Sunday in a jammed-up version of the Hollywood Derby. Although he finished 10th of 13, the colt was beaten less than two full lengths. As a Group 1 winner, Alberto Giacometti could be a force to reckon with on the turf next year.

On Saturday, de Seroux will try to win the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park with Total Impact, a Chilean 5-year-old who has spent most of his American career on the injured reserve list.

Total Impact is a son of Stuka, who won the 1994 Santa Anita Handicap upon the disqualification of The Wicked North.

"Total Impact is the spitting image of Stuka," de Seroux said. "Both are extremely long-bodied chestnuts. Total Impact looks like he's got an extra piece of loin behind the saddle."

Total Impact made his first serious dent for de Seroux in the 2002 UAE Derby, when he journeyed from California to the Middle East and finished a close second to Essence of Dubai going a mile and a quarter.

Unfortunately, Total Impact was not able to repeat that form until May of 2003 - after a couple of bouts with colic and a fractured tibia - when he won the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap on the main track at Hollywood Park. (Fleetstreet Dancer, who finished second, won last weekend's Japan Cup Dirt.) Then, just when Total Impact was emerging as a top horse in the division, de Seroux decided to give him another break.

"He was sore," she said. "His action was flat. A nuclear scan confirmed a bone remodeling process, which is a result of attritional wear and tear when the bone starts to get active."

The nuclear bone scan has been used in performance horses for at least 20 years.

"Bone is a very dynamic tissue," said Dr. Joe Cannon, who scanned Total Impact's legs last spring at his San Luis Rey Equine Hospital. "Sometimes we don't think of it as such. But it's always responding - taking away bone, laying down new bone - responding to pressures put upon it.

"There is a point at which bone isn't able to keep up with stresses it is receiving, and that's when you can get things like stress fractures," Cannon noted. "The end of the cannon bone is a common place for the remodeling process not to keep up with those stresses."

Thoroughbreds are tough enough to return from physical setbacks, but only if those injuries have been detected before irreversible damage is done. In the end, nothing separates trainers better than their ability as diagnosticians. When Total Impact was subjected to his scan last spring, he lit up the board with key areas of bone activity. As a result, all he needed to recover was a vacation - no anesthetic, no surgery, no invasive screws or plates.

"He's a hundred percent now, and we're looking for big things down the line," de Seroux added. "As far as the Native Diver goes, he might get beat by a fitter horse, but he won't get beat by a better horse."