08/19/2003 11:00PM

Madame Pietra to risk stakes streak

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Azeri is not the only mare based in Southern California on a multi-stakes winning streak.

In Saturday's $150,000 Rancho Bernardo Handicap at Del Mar, Madame Pietra will attempt to win her fifth consecutive stakes race, a streak that began last fall at Santa Anita.

Raced sparingly in the last year, Madame Pietra has improved in recent starts, scoring wins this year in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint at Gulfstream Park in January and the Grade 3 Desert Stormer Handicap at Hollywood Park in June.

Madame Pietra missed a start in the A Gleam Handicap at Hollywood Park last month because of a bruised foot, but trainer Howard Zucker said it was not a major setback.

"It was a mild bruise. We were back on the track in four or five days," Zucker said. "She won't be short. With her running style we don't have to hone on her too much."

Madame Pietra has unleashed a devastating kick in recent starts that has carried her from the back of the field to contention by the sixteenth pool.

In the Desert Stormer, she rallied from last to beat Bear Fan by a half-length.

Zucker knows the Rancho Bernardo will be tough. The field includes Cee's Elegance, the winner of the A Gleam Handicap, as well as Jetinto Houston, Miss Bridget Jones, Secret Liaison, and Spring Meadow.

"We have to keep our streak alive," Zucker said. "She's been a good mare."

There has been discussion of selling Madame Pietra in a sale this fall, but owner Carl Grether and Zucker are leaning toward keeping her for another season in 2004.

The early-season goal is the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint for California-breds and Florida-breds at Santa Anita, Madame Pietra's home track.

Back to work for Azeri

Azeri, who stretched her winning streak to 11 with a victory in the Clement Hirsch Handicap on Aug. 10, has returned to galloping at San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall, Calif.

Azeri resumed serious exercise on Tuesday, according to trainer Laura de Seroux. The reigning Horse of the Year, Azeri is scheduled to have her next workout on Labor Day weekend.

Azeri is on course for a defense of her title in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Oct. 25. At Santa Anita, Azeri has won 4 of 5 starts, including the 2002 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap.

The Lady's Secret is likely to be Azeri's next start, although de Seroux and owner Michael Paulson have not finalized plans. The Lady's Secret is run on Sunday, Sept. 28, the opening day of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet.

Del Mar business up

Through the first four weeks of the meet, Del Mar continues to show gains in attendance and handle. Through Monday, the 24th day of the 43-day meet, the average ontrack attendance was 17,891, a gain of 9 percent.

The average ontrack handle was $2,435,115, a gain of 2.4 percent. The overall average handle was $12,699,654, a gain of 8.3 percent over last year when the track set a record average of $12,351,679.

The overall average handle figures include intertrack and interstate simulcasting and telephone and internet betting.

Cassis works for Oaks

Cassis, a top candidate for Sunday's $300,000 Del Mar Oaks, worked six furlongs on turf in 1:12.40 on Wednesday.

Cassis won the Musidora Stakes in England in May, but has lost her last three starts, all in major stakes races. She is based with trainer Kathy Walsh, but will be making her final start for English trainer Jeremy Noseda.

The Grade 1 Oaks is run at 1 1/8 miles on turf and marks the stakes debut of Solar Echo, who is trained by Ron McAnally. A winner of her last three starts, Solar Echo will be ridden by David Flores, who replaces an injured Gary Stevens.

Riley did it all

There were few jobs at the racetrack that the late Dick Riley did not have at one time or another.

Riley, who died on Aug. 10 at a convalescent home near Santa Anita at 74 after a lengthy illness, was well known as the track announcer on the northern California fair circuit and an intertrack television host for many years.

But in a lifetime involvement in the sport, Riley also worked at various times as a morning-line maker, a jockey's agent and, in his younger years, on the gate crew at Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico.

"He did everything and was good at it," said Charlie Palmer, a longtime friend and the racing secretary at the Big Fresno Fair.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Riley was primarily a track announcer and television commentator. He worked the northern fairs as an announcer and was a television host at Fairplex Park, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita. He was one of the first intertrack hosts to present races to simulcast audiences in Southern California.

Earlier this month, a race was named in Riley's honor at the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale.

Services for Riley will be held at Calvary Cemetery, 4301 E. Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles, on Friday at 10:30 a.m.

Stable area thins out

Three weeks remain in the Del Mar season, but already a number of trainers are pulling their horses out of the stable area, leaving wide swaths of empty stalls in an area that is often near capacity when the season starts.

The latest trainer who will be leaving early is Eoin Harty, who trains several dozen runners for the Darley Stud of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Harty said that a handful of runners scheduled to compete in the final weeks at Del Mar will remain here, but that his remaining runners are going to Santa Anita, where Oak Tree's season begins on Sept. 28.

"The track is a hold-your-breath-and-train kind of track right now," Harty said of Del Mar's surface. "We're going to get out this weekend. We're shipping out everything except those left to run here. The place is half-empty as it is. Everyone's going back to Santa Anita."

Del Mar's main track has never been a favorite of trainers. The surface lay dormant for much of the year, and must be whipped into shape for training, and then racing, only weeks after Del Mar's fair closes in early July.

"I just don't think you can properly maintain a track that's not used year-round for racing or training. That's my theory," said Alex Hassinger Jr., Harty's assistant.

* Taste of Paradise, the winner of the San Diego Handicap on Aug. 3, worked five furlongs in 1:00.20 on Wednesday. He will return in the $250,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap at one mile on Sept. 1, trainer John Sadler said.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman