01/24/2003 12:00AM

Meet North America's sweetheart


ARCADIA, Calif. - For the first time in a long while, it is safe to go near the Horse of the Year.

Normally, the Horse of the Year is a fiery young stud, testosterone raging, or an old, careful warrior, suspicious of anything other than a feed tub approaching his stall. The rules applying to such animals are simple: no sudden moves, pet at your risk, and never turn your back, or else.

On Monday night, if sanity prevails, Azeri will be named Horse of the Year for 2002. And so begins the reign of the honey bear. That's her nickname around the Laura de Seroux stable, so deal with it.

Azeri encourages contact. Go ahead, drape an arm over her graceful neck, fiddle with her red forelock, let her lick the salty taste off the palm of an outstretched hand. This might be the first time the Horse of the Year could have joined the people onstage and never turned a hair.

To go anywhere in the de Seroux barn at the San Luis Rey Downs training center, you have to deal with Azeri. She has the stall with the panoramic view, smack dab in the middle of the action. Each horse brought forth to train must first stand in front of Azeri, getting their bandages and final adjustments. She has an unobstructed view of the walking ring, the barn next door, and the hills beyond. She does not demand attention, but she loves it.

Whether or not Azeri will stay in de Seroux's barn remains to be seen. Not since Criminal Type in 1990, with his accomplishments blurred by the bitter wrangles at Calumet Farm, has the Horse of the Year come equipped with such peripheral baggage. Two lawsuits - one of them settled - and Azeri's forced public auction in March have threatened to obscure her true mark on the game, as the first filly or mare since Lady's Secret to be worthy of Horse of the Year.

On that point there should be no doubt. From January to October of 2002, no American Thoroughbred answered more challenges more often than Azeri. Critics cite the fact that she never raced against males as a flaw in her resume, holding her up to precedents set by Lady's Secret in 1986 and All Along in 1983, when females displaced males as Horse of the Year. Their thinking has merit, since a Horse of the Year ideally should be tested to the max.

Unfortunately, one size does not fit all. By the time Lady's Secret contested the 1986 Met Mile against males, she already had run 30 times. All Along, who ran rampant over the American grass division in late 1983, rehearsed for the part with 14 previous starts abroad, seven of them against the boys.

Azeri, on the other hand, began 2002 with only two previous starts. Minor physical ailments kept her from the races until late in her 3-year-old season, and Simon Bray can attest to their legitimacy. He trained Azeri until August of 2001, when Michael Paulson, Allen Paulson's youngest son, transferred the horses of his late father's estate to de Seroux.

"You hate to sound like a Monday-morning quarterback and say, 'I knew she was good' way back when," Bray said. "But she was really exceptional when we had her.

"Just as Laura has indicated in the press, she was very sensible, very straightforward, and easy to train," Bray went on. "She simply didn't get a chance to expose her talent early because she went through all the 'teething' problems. Sore shins, some filling in both front ankles, and then a tibial stress fracture that required a lot of time off."

In terms of horse management, de Seroux did the right thing by orchestrating a traditional campaign focused on the best possible races for older fillies and mares. After finishing second in her stakes debut, the La Canada at Santa Anita, she won her next eight by daylight.

"That was on purpose," de Seroux said, "precisely because she was so inexperienced. If we're fortunate enough to still be training her after the sale, I fully intend to run her against males at some point this year."

Acceptance speeches are supposed to be short and sweet at the Eclipse Awards, which means names sometimes get left on the cutting room floor. For Azeri's Horse of the Year campaign, de Seroux gives full credit to the serenely confident touch of jockey Mike Smith, the steady hands of morning riders Nuno Santos and Brian Eide, and the constant surveillance of groom Alfredo Garcia. Training at de Seroux's side, while history was being made, were assistants Dagmar Sykora, Jeff Ford, and Alex Hassinger, himself a trainer of champions Eliza and Anees.

Azeri is in light but steady training at San Luis Rey, her winter coat clipped and glowing "like a bright, shiny pumpkin," as de Seroux put it. They all like what they see.

"I think back to this time last year, when you'd look at her and say, 'Wow, this could really be something,' " said Alex Hassinger.

"Now, the way she's starting off, I can't help but think, my god, what's she going to be like by the end of this year?"