04/28/2004 11:00PM

Humana offers new challenge for Azeri


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer D. Wayne Lukas is not cutting Azeri back to seven furlongs because he has to, but because he can.

Lukas had the option of running 2002 Horse of the Year in Friday's Grade 2, $300,000 Louisville Breeders' Cup at 1 1/16 miles - a distance at which she has won seven graded stakes - or Saturday's Grade 1, $250,000 Humana Distaff at seven furlongs - a distance at which Azeri has never run. Azeri has not run in a one-turn race since Dec. 17, 2001, the second start of her career.

Lukas chose the Humana on Derby Day at Churchill Downs because of its Grade 1 status and because it will "give [the media] and the public a look at another dimension." Also, Lukas said, "I think she could run 350 yards at Ruidoso or a mile and a half at Belmont; she's just one of the good ones."

Lukas took over the training of Azeri from Laura de Seroux earlier this year and got her ready to run one of the best races of her stellar career in the Apple Blossom Handicap on April 3. Azeri led from start to finish and covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.24 - the second fastest 1 1/16-mile race she has run. Azeri earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 112.

"She's bigger, stronger than she's ever been, and she just finished running faster than she's ever run in her life," Lukas said. "I feel good she'll handle the seven-eighths."

At some point this year, it is likely Azeri will run against males. By cutting her back to seven furlongs in the Humana, Lukas could be trying to determine if the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap, a one-turn mile run at Belmont Park on May 31, is an option.

"That could be," Lukas said. "We'll look at all of our options after this race."

Azeri is the 125-pound highweight in the Humana Distaff and she will concede four to 15 pounds to her six rivals. She will break from post 3 under regular rider Mike Smith.

Azeri's toughest competition in the Humana figures to come from .

Randaroo is a seven-furlong specialist, having won 3 of 4 starts at the distance. Her only loss at seven-eighths came to Island Fashion in the Grade 1 La Brea. This year, Randaroo has won the Grade 3 Shirley Jones and Grade 2 Distaff Breeders' Cup, both handicaps run at seven furlongs.

"I'm not looking forward to [facing Azeri] but we've been pointing for this spot all year," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who is 5 for 6 with Randaroo since getting her from owner Joe Allen last fall. "It's our best distance; hopefully it's not her best distance."

Randaroo, who gets in at 121 pounds, looks like the main speed under John Velazquez from post 2.

"I feel like we will be in front of [Azeri] most of the way," said McLaughlin, a former Lukas assistant. "We're 44-and-change for the half, she's not that way."

Bear Fan, a California-bred daughter of Pine Bluff, won the Barbara Fritchie Handicap at seven furlongs in February. Her trainer, Wesley Ward, began plotting a course for the Humana shortly thereafter and used the March 17 Irish O'Brien, a 6 1/2-furlong turf stakes at Santa Anita, as a prep. Bear Fan won that race and has trained well since. She will break from post 4 under Alex Solis.

Completing the field are Cat Fighter, who was also entered in Friday's Louisville Breeders' Cup, Mayo on the Side, Halory Leigh, and Keiai Sakura.