10/12/2004 11:00PM

Lukas hesitant to pit Azeri vs. males again

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Azeri, with Pat Day up, makes easy work of the Overbrook Spinster, fueling speculation of a Classic start.

It couldn't have taken but seconds after Azeri cruised to victory in last Sunday's Overbrook Spinster Stakes at Keeneland that the discussion began anew over whether she should continue to race against fillies and mares in the Distaff or challenge males in the Classic on Breeders' Cup Day Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park.

It was a point of many animated discussions between owner Michael Paulson and Azeri's first trainer, Laura de Seroux, who guided Azeri to the Horse of the Year title in 2002. And it is again at the forefront for Paulson and Azeri's current trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, who has righted Azeri after a mid-season hiccup.

As with de Seroux, Lukas appears to be coming down on the side of caution. In an interview this week, Lukas outlined the reasons he believes Azeri should race in the Distaff, while emphasizing the final choice will be made by Paulson.

And that choice might not be made until the last moment. The Breeders' Cup has a two-stage entry process. On Monday, horses must be pre-entered. At that point, horses can be named to more than one race, and that is what is likely to happen with Azeri. She is expected to be pre-entered in both the $2 million Distaff and the $4 million Classic. Those entries are announced Wednesday.

Then, on Oct. 27, final entries are due, and post positions are drawn. At that point, horses must be entered in just one race.

"I laid it all out for him," Lukas said from his home in Louisville, Ky., not far from Churchill Downs. "I said, 'I work for you, and I'll do whatever you want, Michael.' He's amazing, the amount of work he does on her. He takes films, and has this stop-frame stuff where he can tear down a race by every eighth and every quarter. It's mind-boggling how in-depth he gets into it.

"I gave him the pros and cons. Obviously, if she goes in the Distaff, she'll be the favorite. The other race has more issues. He wants to double-enter. Look, I want to win a Breeders' Cup race. I don't feel you should go in the Classic unless you have the edge. I did it with Serena's Song in the Haskell because I thought she was the best horse in the race. I did it with Winning Colors in the Derby because I thought she was the best 3-year-old. I did it with Lady's Secret in the Whitney because I thought she was the best horse in the race. They clearly had the best numbers."

The Distaff is at 1 1/8 miles, a distance over which Azeri has won 6 times in 7 starts, including the 2002 Distaff. The Classic is at 1 1/4 miles. The only time Azeri has attempted 1 1/4 miles, she was caught in a speed duel and was nailed late by Storm Flag Flying in the Personal Ensign Handicap. In addition, the Classic will have quality speed horses such as Roses in May, whereas the pace in the Distaff should not be as wicked. In Azeri's lone try against males, she finished eighth of nine in the Metropolitan Handicap.

Lukas said the likely defection of the speedy Saint Liam from the Classic would not alter his opinion over the merits of the two races, but acknowledged that "the way the race unfolds would have a great bearing on the outcome.

"She will relax beautifully," Lukas said. "She doesn't need to wing-ding. What will have more of an effect on her is adding the eighth of a mile from the Distaff to the Classic."

If Azeri wins the Distaff, she likely will clinch her third straight Eclipse Award as champion older filly or mare. And she will complete a remarkable season, returning from near-retirement at the end of 2003.

"It's gratifying the way she's put the doubters to sleep," Lukas said, "but she's one of those that anyone could have taken. I just don't know if anyone could have handled the heat like I can. I'm used to it."

Lukas also will enter Stellar Jayne in the Distaff. Others expected include Ashado, Elloluv, Indy Groove, Island Fashion, Society Selection, Storm Flag Flying, and Tamweel.

Indy Groove is trained by Tom Proctor, who 10 years ago pulled off a Distaff shocker with 47-1 shot One Dreamer. "It's the 10-year anniversary," said Hap Proctor, Tom's brother, who is the farm manager for owner Leonard Lavin's Glen Hill Farm. "Plus, we can eat some good barbecue."

Distaff contenders
3-year-olds & up, fillies & mares, 1 1/8 miles. Purse: $2 million.

RANKHORSETRAINERODDS
1AzeriD. W. Lukas7-5
Everyone else on this list is pleading 'go for it, run her in the Classic'
2Society SelectionH. A. Jerkens8-1
Under the circumstances, her second to Sightseek was a good effort
3Storm Flag FlyingC. McGaughey6-1
Was also up against it in Beldame; more comfortable going two turns
4Island FashionM. Polanco10-1
She can build on her Lady's Secret; then again, she will have to
5TamweelW. Catalano15-1
Second to Azeri and second to Adoration in her last two; a hard tryer
6AshadoT. Pletcher8-1
As easy as her prep was in Philly is as tough as this race will be
7ElloluvC. Dollase20-1
Her third in the Lady's Secret was okay, nothing more, nothing less
8Stellar JayneD. W. Lukas30-1
Had a tough trip at Hoosier, but is still a deep backup for the barn
9Nebraska TornadoA. Fabre30-1
There's some talk about trying her in this spot, not the F&M Turf
10Musical ChimesN. Drysdale20-1
Drysdale has wanted to get her on dirt, but the Mile is the likely spot

- The top 10 contenders for each of the eight Breeders' Cup races are ranked by Mike Watchmaker, who set the odds and wrote the comments. Actual Breeders' Cup fields will have up to 14 starters.