03/14/2002 12:00AM

On May 4, Azeff has date at Churchill


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Under normal circumstances Yvonne Azeff would be leading Booklet into the paddock for Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby and perhaps posing with him in the winner's circle. That's what she did after Booklet captured the Holy Bull Stakes earlier this winter and after Monarchos's victories last year in both the Florida and Kentucky derbies.

Unfortunately, Azeff's life has been anything but normal since a stable pony flipped onto her during training hours here on the morning of Jan. 26. The accident left Azeff, trainer John Ward Jr.'s top assistant, in a coma for nearly a month. She is currently undergoing therapy at the Pinecrest Rehabilitation Hospital in Delray Beach.

Azeff will have to be content watching Booklet's Florida Derby on television with some friends from her bed at the rehabilitation center on Saturday. But Ward said Azeff will be at his side at Churchill Downs if Booklet runs in the Kentucky Derby.

"I visited Yvonne on Tuesday and told her Booklet was running on Saturday," said Ward. "I also told her that with all the therapy she's going through she may be more fit to go a mile and an eighth right now than [Booklet] is and she said 'put me in.' Despite all that has happened she's still got a super sense of humor."

Ward said Azeff sits up in a wheelchair, has complete movement of her upper torso when in bed, and is standing but not walking just yet.

"Her left side is more advanced than her right side but the doctors say after another month of therapy they expect her to be in very good shape. The only thing they cannot determine at the moment is if there will be any long-term physical effects from her injuries. When she talks her selection of words is very articulate and she is extremely alert, although she does fatigue after about 20 minutes."

Ward said Azeff also knows that whenever she is physically well enough to return to the racetrack her job will be waiting for her at the barn.

"She's very anxious to continue her physical therapy almost to the point of trying too hard," said Ward. "I have to caution her sternly about attempting to do things beyond her capability at this point."

Ward said Azeff had only one comment when he told her she would be in Louisville with the whole team for this year's Kentucky Derby.

"She asked me if I'd need a hotwalker," said Ward.

Zito going for No. 1

Trainer Nick Zito will be seeking his first Florida Derby victory when he sends out High Star on Saturday. A win would taste extra sweet coming for the Buckram Oak Farm of Mahmoud Fustok.

Zito's relationship with Buckram Oak began in 1996 with Gameel, who finished second behind Gold Fever in Belmont's Riva Ridge Stakes. When Buckram Oak's principal trainer Mohammed Moubarak took over the position of racing manager for the stable earlier this winter, Fustok turned five horses over to Zito, including High Star and his other promising 3-year-old candidate American Style.

Fustok lives in Saudi Arabia and has been in the racing business for nearly 30 years. His 500-acre Buckram Oak Farm is located just outside Lexington, Ky.

"Mr. Fustok has been in this game for a long time and has always had a great stable in England and France," said Zito. "He's a class man and one of the real gentlemen of the sport. He's also a very quiet man who stays to himself, looks for no accolades but treats all his trainers with respect."

The dark green and red silks of Buckram Oaks have been carried to victory by many notable horses over the years including the French champion miler Green Forest, French classic winners In Fijar, Siberian Express, Fast Topaze, and Pearl Bracelet, as well as Turf Classic winners Anifa and Noble Fighter.

High Star will be Buckram Oaks's second Florida Derby starter. The first, Star Gallant, finished second behind Timely Writer in 1982.

"In my opinion, I don't think you could find a better person or one who deserves to win the trophy for either the Florida Derby or the big one any more than Mr. Fustok," said Zito.

All the undercard's glory

Saturday's Florida Derby undercard features not only three stakes, including the Grade 3 Swale, but also the return of 2001 Illinois Derby winner Distilled and appearances by several other promising but lightly raced 3-year-olds: Warners, Monarchoftheglen, and Buddha.

Distilled has not started since clipping heels and being pulled up in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes on April 21. A son of Hennessy, Distilled defeated Thunder Blitz under allowance conditions here in March while also finishing second to Monarchos last winter.

"He strained a suspensory when his leg was slammed at the start of the Lexington," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "He's trained very well here this winter."

Warners, a $1 million yearling purchase, was Pletcher's most promising 2-year-old in 2001 winning one of two starts before stopping training late last summer. He is entered in a seven-furlong preliminary allowance race on Saturday and also in the six-furlong OBS Sprint Stakes at Ocala on Monday.

"Right now I'm leaning toward the Ocala race because it's at six furlongs," said Pletcher. "The only downside is shipping him up for the race. He's a very talented horse. How far he wants to go is the question."

Pletcher said he is kicking around a lot of options for Warners but will wait until after he makes his 3-year-old debut before seriously considering any spot.

"There's the Aventura here on April 6, the Lafayette or the Bay Shore," said Pletcher. "We'll see where we stand after the weekend and whether we want to get on the Derby trail or not. Obviously it's a tall order getting to the Derby from where we are now but maybe this is the kind of year that's so wide open you can jump into the mix a little late."

* Several horsemen said they were reluctant to enter horses on Saturday because of opening weekend, when traffic problems created by the Bryan Adams concert kept many trainers from getting onto the grounds in time to saddle their horses. A potentially worse traffic jam is likely Saturday with an even larger crowd expected for the 13-race Florida Derby card and a concert by Loverboy and Styx, which starts at 6 p.m, 20 minutes after post time for the Florida Derby.