Updated on 09/17/2011 11:34AM

It shouldn't be close

Benoit & Associates
Trainer Laura de Seroux schools Azeri in the Hollywood Park paddock on Wednesday.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Azeri gave her backers quite a scare when she needed the entire stretch to catch Take Charge Lady in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 5.

After trailing by 1 1/2 lengths in midstretch, Azeri rallied to win her first start of 2003 by a head, extending her winning streak to eight and providing another example of why she was named the 2002 Horse of the Year.

Trainer Laura de Seroux insists the same drama will not occur when Azeri returns in Saturday's $200,000 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park.

"I don't think you will see any rustiness," de Seroux said.

For Azeri's fans, the comment is a relief. Last year, Azeri won seven stakes by margins ranging from 1 3/4 lengths in the Apple Blossom to five lengths in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. The win in the Distaff clinched the Horse of the Year title.

The 5-year-old Azeri is trying to become the first repeat winner of the Milady since Paseana in 1993. When Azeri won the Milady last year, the Grade 1 race for fillies and mares was the third win of her streak and emphasized her status as a filly to follow. A year later, she has become the measure of excellence in the female division.

Since the Apple Blossom, de Seroux has raved about Azeri's progress, stretching the time between workouts to eight or nine days instead of the typical six or seven days to keep the mare from straying off form.

"Last year, she started out as a wispy filly. Right now, she's so strong," de Seroux said earlier this week.

Owned by the Allen Paulson Living Trust, Azeri carries 125 pounds in the Milady and has five opponents. Run over 1 1/16 miles, the race is more a sporting event than a betting opportunity. Azeri will be an overwhelming favorite against Affluent (117 pounds), Keys to the Heart (115) Damaschino (114), Enjoy (113), and Tropical Blossom (111).

All are stakes winners except for Enjoy and Tropical Blossom, who were first and third in an allowance race on April 24, and are making their stakes debuts.

If there is a threat to Azeri, it is Affluent, who has yet to finish in front of her arch-rival in five stakes. Trained by Ron McAnally, Affluent was fourth in the Apple Blossom last month and second in the 2002 Milady. Gary Stevens rides Affluent for the first time on Saturday.

McAnally realizes that beating Azeri is difficult, if not impossible.

"I saw her school and she looked good," McAnally said of Azeri. "We look good and that's all we can hope for."

Keys to the Heart and Enjoy are trained by Beau Greely and will be longshots. Along with Damaschino and Tropical Blossom, the Greely-trained horses are realistically in the race to run third - and gain that all-important placing in a Grade 1 stakes that can enhance the value of a broodmare.

Damaschino is making her first start on dirt after winning multiple stakes on turf in Australia. She joined trainer Neil Drysdale last winter and was fourth in the Wilshire Handicap in her U.S. debut on April 27.

Tropical Blossom, trained by Julio Canani, has won two one-mile races in her six-race career.

Keys to the Heart won the Grade 3 Hawthorne Handicap over 1 1/16 miles on April 25, disputing the lead throughout and holding on to score by a half-length over Rhiana. Staying close to the pace may be Keys to the Heart's only chance.

Going with Azeri can be a dangerous tactic. Azeri has a "high-cruising speed," according to de Seroux. Azeri has broken the hearts of many rivals in the last year by accelerating away from them on the backstretch.

De Seroux expects to see Azeri in front on Saturday - and back in the winner's circle for the ninth consecutive time.