04/01/2004 12:00AM

It won't be easy for Azeri

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Azeri began her rise to prominence two years ago when, in her sixth career start, she defeated Affluent and Miss Linda in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. She went on to be named Horse of the Year that season.

In her second Apple Blossom appearance last year, Azeri showed grit while coming off a five-month layoff to catch Take Charge Lady on the wire.

On Saturday, she will attempt to win a record third Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom following a six-month layoff, and may not even go favored over a budding group of fillies and mares that includes Grade 1 winners Island Fashion, Wild Spirit, and Star Parade.

The 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom will share a program with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, headed by Peace Rules. A special double links the two races, which will go as the ninth and 11th, respectively, on a 12-race card that opens the 31st annual Racing Festival of the South.

The festival runs for the final six days of the meet, during which time nine stakes worth a record $2.6 million will be decided. The highlight is the $1 million Arkansas Derby on closing day, April 10.

The front-running Azeri, now 6, has been the festival's star for the past two years, and will be so again if she can handle Star Parade early and fight off late bids from Island Fashion and Wild Spirit. Golden Sonata, a strong closer, and Keys to the Heart, who will be ridden by Edgar Prado, complete the six-horse field for the Apple Blossom.

Azeri is the 123-pound highweight under Mike Smith - who has been aboard for all 16 of Azeri's career races - and will spot her rivals four to 12 pounds. The race will be her first start since Sept. 28, when she finished third in the Grade 2 Lady's Secret at Santa Anita and was placed second following the disqualification of Elloluv.

The loss ended a streak of 11 straight wins against top-flight company.

D. Wayne Lukas will saddle Azeri for the first time Saturday. He has put a strong series of works into the mare, who continues to race for the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust.

"I think any trainer who trains racehorses has got to be concerned about their comeback race," Lukas said. "Works are works, and she's had some brilliant ones and she's giving us every indication that she's fit, and I feel comfortable. [But] there's always that little nagging gray area when you are a little bit concerned about horses that have had recency."

Island Fashion, who could be favored, has the benefit of catching both Azeri and Wild Spirit off layoffs. She might not need that advantage, though. In her last start, Island Fashion turned in a powerful second-place finish against male rivals in the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6.

Prior to that race, she reeled off two Grade 1 wins, taking the Santa Monica and the La Brea. "She loves to compete," said Marcelo Polanco, who trains Island Fashion.

Azeri should be in the race early, said Lukas, as will Star Parade, who was second last out in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita.

"She's got a lot of speed, and we'll probably let her use it," said Darrell Vienna, Star Parade's trainer.

A duel between those two mares would set the race up for Island Fashion, who figures to be sitting off the pace on the turn back in distance from 1 1/4 miles. She will be ridden by Kent Desormeaux.

Wild Spirit is another who would benefit from a duel. She can stalk and pounce, and in her last start was an easy 3 1/2-length winner of the Grade 1 Ruffian at Belmont Park on Sept. 13. Following that race, she was given time off after her connections decided against supplementing the mare, who was bred in Chile, to the Breeders' Cup.

Wild Spirit appears to be sitting on a big year for trainer Bobby Frankel. In four starts for the trainer, she has won three graded stakes and finished second by a nose in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign. Jerry Bailey has the mount.