06/24/2004 11:00PM

Letters to the Editor

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Champ's crisis: Azeri standing at crossroads

Azeri's long-awaited comeback this year was something to see, as she won a record third straight Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. But how quickly things can change, and now that spring has turned to summer it has been one flop after another for the former Horse of the Year.

After that dominant performance to start her 2004 campaign, Azeri has lost three consecutive races.

First, she dropped a head decision to an average mare, Mayo on the Side, in the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day. Thrown into the Met Mile against males, where she had no business running, she ran eighth of nine. Then, most recently, there was the dismal performance (at 4-5) in the Ogden Phipps Handicap, finishing last in a field of four.

The million-dollar question is, Where does Azeri go from here?

The owners of Azeri, headed by Michael Paulson, looked brilliant more than two months ago, bringing Azeri back to top form under Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. But this roller-coaster ride has gone off the tracks and has now left more questions than answers.

Why was Laura de Seroux replaced as Azeri's trainer? Why was regular rider Mike Smith removed? These are just two questions that need to be answered.

The obvious number one question is, What is in the best interest for Azeri? Has she had enough? Only one man at this stage of the game can answer that: Lukas. Whatever the decision may be, we all have to assume that Lukas will do whatever is in the best interest of the champ.

If that means retiring Azeri, so be it. We have seen one of the best equine athletes of all time, and we can be thankful for that. And if Azeri continues running, let's all hope we can see her rise to the top once more.

Salvatore Coriale
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Wrong motives keep mare running

As a diehard fan of horse racing and Azeri in particular, I have to ask Michael Paulson, manager of Azeri's ownership, How many more losses must her fans endure before he realizes 1. That Mike Smith is the only rider for Azeri and/or 2. That Azeri no longer shows an interest in racing and should be retired before her crown is tarnished further?

In the eyes of her fans, Azeri has nothing left to prove to us, or to anyone for that matter. Her place among the great fillies and mares of racing is no doubt assured. But it seems to this fan that she is kept to racing not for further glory but for greed.

Yes, it would have been fantastic if the late Allen Paulson had not only the great Cigar atop the all-time earnings list, but Azeri as the all-time earning filly or mare. But I would like to think that he would have realized something was wrong with Azeri and allowed her to go out the champion that she is and not tarnish her crown with further losses in pursuit of more money.

Shane Gonzales
Palm Desert, Calif.

Campaign for 6-year-old a misguided course

For months we read of Azeri in the Watchmaker Watch, "If she races, she will be exposed."

Though apparently won over by Azeri's victory in this year's Apple Blossom, Mike Watchmaker was prompted by her loss in the Ogden Phipps last weekend to suggest that, even though she swept every major West Coast filly and mare race, plus the Apple Blossom and Breeders' Cup Distaff, she was never that good after all. Perhaps, he wrote, Azeri's former trainer, Laura de Seroux, knew this and deliberately ducked the competition, "beating up on the same patsies out West" ("Faded glory of two champions," June 23).

That attitude is blind to the far more obvious explanation: The once-sensational Azeri has been ruined by a grotesquely mismanaged 6-year-old campaign. Her one-turn-laden, jam-packed, gender-bending season has been one of utter lunacy. Yes, she is much the best, but she cannot be just plopped down in any race and be expected to win. She is superior, but not invincible, and being run into the ground by those blind to the distinction.

Azeri has returned. D. Wayne Lukas has been exposed.

Jeremy Levin
Los Angeles

What the sport needs now is realistic weights

Hats off to Burt Bacharach. Finally a renowned owner and breeder has come out against the current weight standards for jockeys, as Bacharach did in his full-page ad in the Belmont Stakes Day Racing Form, June 5.

I have been involved in the racing world for over 25 years, as an owner, breeder, and mutuel clerk. It is way past time for a change. These jockeys put their lives and health on the line every time they get up on a horse.

Are our horses so feeble that they can't carry a few extra pounds? What about the great Forego and Kelso?

I'm tired of trainers crying about too much weight. What would they do if they were in England or Ireland? Cry and stay home?

All owners and trainers should back Mr. Bacharach and demand they change the weights. These jockeys deserve it.

Elaine M. Willis
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Elusive goal shouldn't be the impossible dream

In regard to changing the requirements to participate in the quest to win the Triple Crown, I agree with the June 13 letter to the Racing Form "Make it triple or nothing."

It isn't any accident that for the past two years benchwarmers who have sat out the middle jewel of the Crown have been rewarded with victory in the Belmont Stakes.

To continue to allow horses to run in Triple Crown events who have not run in a previous leg will only add years to the wait for a horse to win all three races. I don't see how a new eligibility requirement will make it easier for a horse to win all three, but it certainly will make it more fair. It's really very simple - skip a race and your horse is out.

The momentum to win new fan interest is highest during the Triple Crown races, and racing can't continue to sanction its showcase events to allow benchwarmers to become spoilers. To continue to deny that declining interest in our sport is not linked to the lack of a Triple Crown winner since 1978 is to miss the point completely.

If indeed the Triple Crown is the greatest challenge in sports, then to have a future for this sport, we need to find a way for a horse win it a little more often than every 26 years.

Chris Canfield
Bedford, Ohio

Valenzuela's arrogance sure to backfire

I read in the Form that Patrick Valenzuela's request for a stay of his suspension had been denied ("No Belmont for Valenzuela," June 3). I could not believe that, in the New York Post, Valenzuela's lawyer quoted the jockey as saying, "I'll get on Rock Hard Ten for the Breeders' Cup Classic, then I'll show everyone."

Valenzuela talks as if everyone and everything else tore his house down, but the truth is he tore it down - not drugs, not the California Horse Racing Board, not anyone else. The racing industry and fans have more than supported him. The norm is that when a person suffering from the disease of addiction is as arrogant, narcissistic, and ungrateful as Valenzuela is, he will self-destruct again.

Carl B. Skinner
New York City