07/20/2004 11:00PM

Life after Azeri turns out rosy

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Benoit & Associates
Although her stable struggled after she stopped training Azeri, Laura de Seroux has warmed up with three graded stakes wins this month.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Laura de Seroux does not radiate emotion. What comes out publicly is a careful intelligence, balanced control.

But watching the Apple Blossom Handicap this past April 3 was pulling her apart.

In the race was Azeri, de Seroux's one-time mega-star. Azeri had been Horse of the Year in 2002, dragging de Seroux with her onto racing's center stage. And now, Azeri was out of de Seroux's hands.

At the end of 2003, de Seroux had seen too much of Azeri's problematic tendon. She recommended that owner Michael Paulson retire her. Paulson demurred, and Azeri, who was ultimately named the champion older female of 2003, went not out to pasture, but to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who readied her over the winter, and entered her in the Apple Blossom. Azeri went out and ran one of her best races, beating Wild Spirit by 1 1/2 lengths.

"I was very, very conflicted," de Seroux said. "I didn't want her to lose, but I didn't want to be wrong, either. I felt a little embarrassment, that I would be perceived as being wrong."

As spring folded into summer, Azeri's Apple Blossom remained the emblematic moment in de Seroux's season. Her own horses weren't doing much. Three weeks ago, when she came to Arlington Park for two stakes races, de Seroux's record stood at 4 for 68, with no stakes wins.

De Seroux and her two Arlington horses, Ballingarry and Toasted, are back this weekend, and everything has changed. Azeri's form has crumbled, and de Seroux feels vindicated, but more satisfying are the developments within her own barn. Toasted, the favorite here Saturday in the American Derby, won the Grade 2 Arlington Classic on July 3. A day later, Ballingarry, likely favored Saturday in the Arlington Handicap, won the Grade 3 Stars and Stripes for the second year in a row. On July 17, the de Seroux-trained Total Impact upset the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup.

So, yes, reports of de Seroux's demise were premature.

"It's not like I just came on the scene," she said. "I've been in this business for 33 years."

De Seroux, 52, began training in 1999, but she had dabbled in the bloodstock business for 20 years. As she started traveling back and forth between California and Europe, buying and selling horses, she kept her day job as an exercise rider for trainer Charlie Whittingham. De Seroux met a French bloodstock agent named Emmanual de Seroux, and the two began an intercontinental romance, marrying in 1986.

"It was all very exciting," de Seroux said. "Traveling back and forth to Europe. Having a relationship with a Frenchman."

The de Serouxs engineer purchases of European horses that are then imported to the United States. Here, they begin anew for an American trainer, and years ago, many wound up with Whittingham.

"It was great fun, to be the first one on the back of a horse you purchased for the bald man," said de Seroux.

The de Serouxs formed Narvick International in 1984, and their business has prospered. Both Toasted and Ballingarry are former Europeans purchased through Narvick. Chicago businessman Sidney Port, de Seroux's staunchest supporter through her training career, is the principal owner of both.

Ballingarry, a Group 1 winner at 2, was the better known of these two. When he won the Grade 1 Canadian International (the purse went to his previous owners) in his first North American start, great things were expected. Until now, Ballingarry has failed to deliver. Physical problems curtailed his development, and the Stars and Stripes was his lone win of 2003. But now, with a new come-from-behind style, and sounder than ever before, Ballingarry has moved forward.

"We're going to be okay with that horse," de Seroux said. "I've finally gotten over all his problems. He's training like a 2-year-old again now."

With his win in the American Derby, Toasted ranks among the best 3-year-old grass horses in the country. He was purchased last year in France on the strength of decent form - not top-class - and positive physical attributes.

"He's light on his feet. He glides over the ground," said de Seroux.

And then there is Azeri. She has lost three straight starts, the last an ugly defeat in the June 19 Ogden Phipps at Belmont. De Seroux is not crowing, but she believes her original judgment has been vindicated.

"I felt at some point, sooner rather than later, the problems would come up again," she said.

While Azeri is on a three-race losing streak, de Seroux, going into Wednesday, had won her last three starts, all graded stakes. Her barn has come back together as the year has progressed - just as she believed it would through the difficult first half of the season.

"You have to make yourself hold your head high," de Seroux said. "I have a strong inner self. You don't change things. Don't panic. Don't change things, and it will start working again."