06/23/2003 11:00PM

High-wattage world of Azeri

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Mike Paulson has a problem. He can't keep his hands off his horse. This would be fine if his horse was Ol' Bessie the trail nag, hitched to a post out at Turkey Neck Ranch. Give the man a curry comb and a hoofpick and let him play all day.

Paulson's horse, however, just happens to be Azeri, and Azeri is somewhat more than the world's largest plush toy. As reigning Horse of the Year, she is doing everything in her power to maintain that status, which most recently included her victory on Saturday in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park. Azeri has now won 10 major stakes races in a row.

Still, the daunting nature of Azeri's reputation has nothing to do with her personality. And her personality has captivated Paulson completely. As the administrator of the trust that owns the Thoroughbreds of his late father, Allen Paulson, Mike Paulson is obligated to protect all racing and breeding assets and maximize their value. These duties, however, do not render him immune to Azeri's charms.

So there he was on Saturday in the Hollywood paddock, stroking Azeri's hip as her trainer, Laura de Seroux, prepared to apply saddle and girth. It looked like a high-class petting zoo, with family and friends gathered around, pressing closer than most Thoroughbreds would allow. The only thing missing was a sign that read, "Get your picture with the Champ - $5."

"I don't want to get in the way of the professionals, but I just love the horse," Paulson said after the Vanity. "The closer I can get to her the better.

"She's such a gentle, loving horse," Paulson went on. "I trust her 100 percent. I've been around horses since I was a young kid, and I've always learned that you walk about five feet around the back of them, knowing they might kick out. But I can stand right behind her. She wouldn't hurt a fly."

But she does break hearts. Useful, improving fillies like Sister Girl Blues and Bare Necessities will go on to win other races in other towns. Hopefully, their experience of running as hard as they could in a lost cause against Azeri will not take an excessive toll.

"It would be great if we could find a little more competition for her," said Rick Baedeker, president of Hollywood Park, as he watched Azeri being saddled.

His point was apparent in the tote. Despite the field of seven, show betting was eliminated for the Vanity. And while it is hard to have much sympathy for bridge-jumping show plungers - so much fuss for so little reward - it is sad that a track must act defensively when presented with a promotional tool like the Horse of the Year.

"It was certainly an unusual circumstance, but it wasn't a tough decision," Baedeker said. "We have a lot of instances where we know we're going to lose money, but there really isn't anything we can do about it. In this case, we could do something about it. We need to survive."

In the end, Azeri's flawless performance cost the betting network $134,837 in the form of a minus place pool. The loss was spread around among the various clients tapping into the host signal from outside California, so do not feel too sorry for Hollywood and its parent, Churchill Downs Inc. In the end, the Vanity might have cost the track $25,000, split evenly between purses and operations.

Of more concern remains the fact that only 8,912 fans came out to see the Horse of the Year in person, and that the Vanity was not a part of the CBS "Champions Tour" national telecast. The only saving grace was the window on local FoxSportsNet2 that carries two hours of TVG programming. Fittingly, the Vanity came at the end of the show.

"It could have been part of the CBS show, but it would have required us to move the race to a much earlier place on the card," Baedeker said. "We are making some concessions along those lines for other races at the meet, but we really don't like to do that unless we must. Granted, we had just under 9,000 people out here, but they came to see Azeri, and she was the marquee event."

Fans who prefer their horses in the flesh will see Azeri next at Del Mar, in either the Clement Hirsch Handicap, which she won last year, or the San Diego Handicap, in which she would face males for the first time in her career. Paulson is well aware of the widespread curiosity to find out how Azeri would fare against the boys.

"There are people who might think, once you've accomplished Horse of the Year, what else is there - unless it's winning it twice?" Paulson said. "That's more of a dream than a goal. The key is to never take any competition lightly, since even the greats can be beaten. We will be taking a close look at the fields for those races, and we will try and not look too far ahead."

With one exception. There is one very particular wish that needs to be fulfilled once Azeri is retired.

"At the end of her racing career, we'll saddle her up and I'll get to sit on her and walk around," Paulson said. "I can't wait. It will be a very special moment."