10/20/2003 12:00AM

Inflamed leg knocks out Azeri

Azeri eases up past the wire in the Lady's Secret. She will miss the Breeders' Cup and may be retired.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Azeri had been acting in an obstinate manner of late, and trainer Laura de Seroux instinctively believed something was amiss. On Monday, de Seroux found what she believes had caused Azeri's behavioral change, and while the trainer was relieved to finally find a cause to the effect, the diagnosis was sobering, because it will keep Azeri out of Saturday's Breeders' Cup Distaff, and might very well bring Azeri's racing career to a close.

Azeri has an inflamed tendon in her left front leg, de Seroux said. She has been withdrawn from the Distaff, which will now have a field of just seven.

"We scanned her left front tendon, and it's officially pregnant," de Seroux said Monday from San Luis Rey Downs in California, where Azeri is based. "It just backs up what I said the other day, that something was up. Horses are trying to tell you something long before we can see it. They telegraph these things."

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, thus becomes the latest high-profile runner to defect from this year's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, which will be held for the 20th time on Saturday at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. Mineshaft, one of the leading contenders for Horse of the Year, and Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker were retired last month and will miss the Classic. The race most devastated by defections is the Juvenile, which is missing the winners of the Champagne Stakes (Birdstone), Lanes End Breeders' Futurity (Eurosilver), Hopeful (Silver Wagon), and Norfolk Stakes (Ruler's Court).

It is not uncommon for horses to defect at this time of year, as the strain of year-long campaigns begins to take a toll, usually on older runners who have been going since the spring.

Despite the defections, the eight races to be run Saturday will have championship implications across the board, most notably the Classic, where a victory by Funny Cide, Medaglia d'Oro, Perfect Drift, or even Ten Most Wanted might result in a Horse of the Year title. With Azeri out of the Distaff, the opportunity arises for Got Koko, Sightseek, or Take Charge Lady to replace Azeri as champion older filly or mare.

Final entries for the Breeders' Cup are due Wednesday morning, after which post positions for all eight races will be drawn. Eight horses - Falbrav among them - were pre-entered in two races last week. They must be declared for one race before to the post-position draw.

The forecast for Saturday is for a glorious day, with a high temperature of 78 degrees. Before that, though, everyone here might just melt.

It was 90 degrees at Santa Anita by midday on Monday, and the temperature was expected to reach that level on Tuesday and Wednesday before easing off. The weather was quite mild early in the morning, just before dawn, but within two hours of a gorgeous sunrise, the temperatures began to soar. The skies were clear, offering a spectacular view of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.

The day's most significant news was taking place 100 miles to the southeast, where Azeri's injury was diagnosed by Dr. Joe Cannon.

"It's subtle, but subtle is real with tendons," de Seroux said. "I knew it. I've seen it happen too many times. In the Lady's Secret, she acted like she didn't want to be there with her behavior, and that subtlety became more profound."

Azeri had an 11-race winning streak come to an end in the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sept. 28. She had two fast workouts since then at San Luis Rey Downs, including on Friday, but only after first balking at the commands of exercise rider Brian Eide to head off for those works.

"She always trained with such joy," de Seroux said. "I think she was trying to tell us something."

Michael Paulson, who manages the Allen Paulson Living Trust, which owns Azeri, said Azeri would be sent to Kentucky within the next week. Paulson said Azeri "has a reservation to A.P. Indy" next spring. Before learning of the tendon injury, though, Paulson said he wanted to wait before deciding on whether Azeri would race again before being bred.

"Right now I just want to focus on her health," Paulson said. "I made a promise I would never run a horse unless it was 100 percent. We're not taking a chance on running her in the World Thoroughbred Championships."

Azeri won last year's Distaff to secure Horse of the Year. A 5-year-old Jade Hunter mare, she has won 14 times in 16 starts, and has earned $3,044,820.

Azeri's defection from the Distaff makes Sightseek the heavy favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race. Sightseek has won four straight Grade 1 races, and she completed her serious training with an effortless five-furlong drill in 59.20 seconds on Sunday at Hollywood Park with exercise rider Marco Ramirez.

"That's typical for her," said her trainer, Bobby Frankel.

Buy the Sport, who should be the longest shot in the field, worked five furlongs in 1:00.80 on Sunday at Belmont Park. She is scheduled to fly here on Wednesday.

On Monday, Lady Tak worked five furlongs in 59.60 seconds at Churchill Downs. She was scheduled to fly to California on Tuesday. Take Charge Lady, who also is stabled at Churchill Downs, is scheduled to fly here on Thursday.

The Distaff field is expected to be Adoration (Patrick Valenzuela the rider), Buy the Sport (John Velazquez), Elloluv (Corey Nakatani), Got Koko (Alex Solis), Lady Tak (Pat Day), Sightseek (Jerry Bailey), and Take Charge Lady (Edgar Prado).