07/28/2004 11:00PM

It's answer time for Azeri

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - There were a lot of raised eyebrows when owner Michael Paulson elected to bring the two-time champion mare Azeri back to the races this year.

Through 2003, Azeri won 14 of 16 starts, earned more than $3 million, and was named 2002 Horse of the Year, the first female to earn that distinction since Lady's Secret in 1986.

Azeri's former trainer, Laura de Seroux, suggested Azeri be retired after developing a tendon injury that forced her to miss the 2003 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Apparently, the injury was not as serious as first thought, and Paulson elected to bring her back, transferring her to D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer of Lady's Secret and several other of the sport's best females.

Paulson looked smart when Azeri won her third consecutive Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn in April. Some called it Azeri's best performance. But things have not continued to go well for Azeri. She has lost her last three races, including a last-place finish in the Ogden Phipps Handicap, in which she was reported to have bled through Lasix.

Now, some are wondering whether Azeri's star has completely faded and if Paulson is tarnishing her image by continuing to race her. It's a question that may be answered Sunday when Azeri returns to the races in the Grade 1, $250,000 Go for Wand at Saratoga.

"I know some of that's out there. I really don't understand it," Paulson said this week from Southern California. "The horse loves to race. That's what we breed and put so much time and investment in these horses for, is to get a horse like Azeri. I don't think it has tarnished her. How can you tarnish a Horse of the Year and a two-time champion? You can count those on one hand."

Paulson and Lukas believe Azeri's three-race losing streak can be explained away quite easily. Lukas was not thrilled with Mike Smith's ride in the Humana Distaff, in which Azeri was beaten a head by Mayo on the Side. Azeri also spotted Mayo on the Side 11 pounds in that race.

Lukas replaced Mike Smith with Pat Day. In the Metropolitan Handicap against males, Azeri finished eighth, beaten 6 3/4 lengths. She was buried on the inside and, according to Lukas, didn't handle Belmont's surface. In the Ogden Phipps, Azeri raced on the lead for the opening half-mile before backing up and finishing 11 3/4 lengths behind Sightseek. Lukas said she bled.

Ten days after the Phipps, however, Azeri was back on the work tab, blazing a half-mile in 45.60 seconds at Churchill Downs. She has followed that up with bullet works every week, including a half-mile move in 48.81 seconds Tuesday over the Oklahoma training track.

"I feel like she's training better now than she has," Lukas said. "You never now about 6-year-olds - geldings, studs, or mares - but having said that, she's training very aggressively and very positively. Her energy level is really good. The races that she's lost we can make a case for."

The Go for Wand will be a severe test for Azeri, as she meets four other Grade 1 winners, including Sightseek, Storm Flag Flying, and Passing Shot, all of whom finished ahead of Azeri in the Phipps. If Azeri wins, she will become the sport's all-time leading earner among females.

Paulson actually wanted to bring Azeri to Saratoga last year to face the males in the Whitney Handicap. But de Seroux was against it.

"That was definitely on our schedule," Paulson said. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out. My then-trainer wasn't real crazy about going to Saratoga and running in the Whitney. I though it was a good match-up, her and Medaglia d'Oro. That would have been an excellent race. She was definitely at her peak."

The question many will be wondering come Sunday is if Azeri can ever reach her peak again.