Updated on 09/17/2011 10:14AM

Layoff, wide trip can't stop Azeri

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Jeff Coady
Azeri (outside) hooks Take Charge Lady approaching the wire to take a head decision in Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark - In an effort befitting of her 2002 Horse of the Year title, Azeri won her first start back from a five-month layoff in the

Grade 1, $500,000 Saturday at Oaklawn Park. Azeri dug in after a wide trip to get past Take Charge Lady and win the Apple Blossom Handicap by a head.

The race was Azeri's first since her five-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 26. She and Paseana are the only horses to win two runnings of the Apple Blossom.

Azeri, 5, was off a step slowly and settled in third along the rail, about two lengths behind Take Charge Lady, who led the field through an opening quarter in 24.20 seconds, and a half in 48.70, with Mandy's Gold in close pursuit.

Azeri angled out four wide past the half-mile pole, went three wide around the final turn and into the stretch, and wore down Take Charge Lady to get up in the final stride.

Azeri, the 123-pound highweight, covered the 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares in 1:43 over a fast track before an ontrack crowd of 28,165. Mandy's Gold was third, 3 1/4 lengths behind Take Charge Lady.

Mike Smith rode Azeri for the Allen Paulson Living Trust and trainer Laura de Seroux.

Azeri paid $2.80, $2.20, and $2.20 as the 2-5 favorite in the field of seven, and created a minus show pool of $147,094.

Azeri was a dominating winner of the Breeders' Cup Distaff last year to cap an 8-for-9 season that led to her becoming the first female since Lady's Secret in 1986 to be voted Horse of the Year.

She won five Grade 1 races last year, and her career record stands at 11 for 12. She picked up $300,000 for the win Saturday, which increased her earnings to $2,527,740.

Azeri is $1,012,802 from equaling the earnings mark for a filly or mare in North America, which is held by Spain.

De Seroux said earlier this week that Azeri could make her next start in the Grade 2, $300,000 Louisville Breeders' Cup on May 2, which is Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs. Later this season, she could meet male rivals in the Grade 1, $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park on July 13.