10/26/2004 12:00AM

Master with the female of the species

D. Wayne Lukas likens Azeri to another champion, Serena's Song: "They could be sisters."

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - When D. Wayne Lukas took over as the trainer of Azeri at the beginning of the year, he entered what was seemingly a no-win situation. The conventional wisdom was that Azeri had soured on racing, based on her obstinacy while training in the fall of 2003. She had accomplished enough, by virtue of having captured Horse of the Year in 2002. What more could she do?

Become the latest in a long line of top female horses trained by Lukas, that's what. If Azeri ends her brilliant career with an upset victory against males in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Lone Star Park, she will secure her third straight Eclipse Award as champion older filly or mare. And she will become the 14th female runner to have earned a championship under Lukas's care. His 13 previous champions have earned a total of 16 Eclipse Awards, including the 1986 Horse of the Year title for Lady's Secret.

Lukas has trained eight male horses who have won championships, including Criminal Type, the 1990 Horse of the Year, and Charismatic, who gave Lukas his fourth Derby victory and was Horse of the Year in 1999. His record with fillies and mares, though, is unprecedented in the sport. And it has been a continuing theme ever since Lukas switched from Quarter Horses to Thoroughbreds more than 25 years ago.

Lukas's first major runner was the filly Terlingua, who beat males such as Flying Paster in the 1978 Hollywood Juvenile Championship, but missed out on an Eclipse Award. Ten years later, Lukas sent out the filly Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby, and she became only the third filly to win the Derby. His female champions have had short careers, such as Flanders, and long, productive careers, like Lady's Secret and Serena's Song. When his entire roster of champion runners was recited for him in an interview this week, Lukas seemed almost taken aback.

"Boy, that's a hell of a list," Lukas said. "If you had asked me to name all of them, I'd have probably forgotten a couple. Any three or two would have made a trainer's career. I've been blessed with a lot of them."

The list of leading female money-winning horses based in North America has Lukas's fingerprints all over it. Azeri, who earned slightly more than $3 million while trained by Laura de Seroux, this year reached the top spot with $3,959,820. Spain is second with $3,540,542. Serena's Song is fourth with $3,283,388.

"The thing we've been able to do is that when they get good, they stay good," Lukas said. "Lady's Secret, Winning Colors. Spain went out with a flourish. They thrive with a lot of care. Females need more attention and love and care, whether they're human or equine." Lukas paused, laughed, and continued, "Not that I know anything with the humans." He is a four-time divorce.

"You can make more mistakes with colts," Lukas said. "They overcome more. You've got to be more in tune and right on target with fillies. Colts can take a whipping in a race and bounce back quicker."

Lady's Secret and Serena's Song were put through aggressive, ambitious campaigns by Lukas, including races against males. Lady's Secret won the Whitney Handicap, Serena's Song the Haskell.

"Serena's Song had a stronger constitution," Lukas said. "She showed up every time. Serena's Song ran 16th in the Kentucky Derby, then won the Black-Eyed Susan two weeks later. Some of the things she did were phenomenal. She was good right to the last day."

Lukas also sent out Althea to beat males in the Arkansas Derby.

"We wheeled her back in a week from the Fantasy and she parked," he said. "We've stepped out of the box a lot. Terlingua broke her maiden in a stake. Then we ran her in the Hollywood Juvenile and she won that and beat Flying Paster. Althea in the Arkansas Derby. Lady's Secret stepping up and beating the boys. These things are not generally accepted, but we've shown we can get these fillies to run."

Asked which filly he believes he did the most with, Lukas answers before the question is finished.

"No question. It's Spain," he said emphatically of the diminutive filly who won the Breeders' Cup Distaff in 2000 and was second in the 2001 Distaff. "Where she started to where she ended up was just phenomenal. When we got her, we weren't thinking she was going to end up the all-time money winner. We thought maybe we could try her in Chicago.

"She was little. There wasn't much to her. She was a great overachiever. She had a lot of talent that was well hidden. It took a real effort to bring it out."

Lukas has trained Azeri for not quite a year, but he said she most reminds him of Serena's Song.

"They could be sisters," he said. "Serena's Song had the ability to take the race to you. Winning Colors had that too, but not the durability that Serena's Song had. Serena's Song had great speed. If you went with her, you were in trouble. If you left her alone, you were in trouble. She was one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't horses."

Azeri has a similar running style. Few horses have been able to go with her and prevail. And when she is left alone, she is difficult to get past. Her worst performance, though, came in the Metropolitan Handicap, her lone start against males, when she finished eighth of nine.

After one more poor effort, Azeri has returned to her best form. She won both the Go for Wand Handicap at Saratoga and the Spinster at Keeneland. In between those two victories was a second-place finish in the Personal Ensign Handicap at Saratoga, when a wicked early pace sapped her strength, though she battled bravely before getting caught late by Storm Flag Flying.

"That might have been her best race," Lukas said. "She didn't lose any credibility with that second."

And now, on the eve of the Breeders' Cup, Lukas says Azeri is primed for another top effort. Against the likes of Birdstone, Funny Cide, Ghostzapper, Pleasantly Perfect, and Roses in May in the Classic, she will need it.

"I think I've got this one better than I've ever had her," Lukas said. "Ever since the summer, we've been getting her ready for this plum."

Ladies' man

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has trained 13 fillies and mares who collectively have earned 16 Eclipse Awards, including one Horse of the Year title. Asked to play word association with each, Lukas gave these responses:

* Althea2-year-old filly1983
"Tough, really tough"
* Family Style2-year-old filly1985
"We got the maximum out of her."
* Flanders2-year-old filly1994
"She was brilliant."
* Golden Attraction2-year-old filly1995
"Solid. Outstanding."
* Lady's SecretHorse of the Year1986
  Older female1986
"A career-maker."
* Landaluce2-year-old filly1982
"As good as I've ever had."
* Life's Magic3-year-old filly1984
 Older female1985
"An overachiever."
* North SiderOlder female1987
"In the right place at the right time."
* Open Mind2-year-old filly1988
 3-year-old filly1989
"She was a complete surprise. She showed up every time."
* Sacahuista3-year-old filly1987
"Raja Baba's best daughter."
* Serena's Song3-year-old filly1995
"A lifelong-dream type of filly."
* Surfside3-year-old filly2000
"Psychological toughness and talent to match."
* Winning Colors3-year-old filly1988
"Made it possible to get all the others."