09/29/2003 12:00AM

Not even a champ's perfect

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In horse racing, as in life, there are few things more futile than the pursuit of perfection. This hard truth was hammered home again Sunday at Santa Anita Park, where the Oak Tree Racing Association opened its Breeders' Cup meet with a festival of four major stakes.

After winning the Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship by a measured half-length over Johar, Storming Home should be perfect in four American starts. He is not, though, because something caught his eye near the end of the Arlington Million and sent him into a disqualifying spin.

Tates Creek likewise should be perfect in 2003 after her hard-fought win in the Yellow Ribbon Stakes, except for the dropped stitch in the John C. Mabee Handicap at Del Mar when stablemate Megahertz came up with a half-length surprise.

Azeri was perfect in 11 straight races, dating back 19 months, until the string unraveled on Sunday in the Lady's Secret Handicap, won by the enterprising Got Koko.

And then there is Halfbridled, the baby of the bunch, who is tantalizingly perfect through her first three starts, including Sunday's Oak Leaf Stakes.

Everything is still brand-new to the 2-year-old Halfbridled. Such innocence adds to her appeal. The Oak Leaf presented Halfbridled with her first two full turns going 1 1/16 miles, which she accomplished with the world-weary poise of a much older animal.

"I'm glad that one's over," said Richard Mandella at the end of the day as he watched Halfbridled graze on a patch of lush bluegrass. "The way she came back to the barn, though, you wouldn't think she'd even run a race."

Indeed, the only surprise of the afternoon came a few moments later when a set of nearby sprinklers popped on. Halfbridled lifted her nose and contemplated the misty intrusion, then dove back into the grass. Mandella instructed her hotwalker, Minor Limas, to move to another grazing ground, after which he made a mental note to adjust the watering timer to avoid potential Breeders' Cup winners.

Laura de Seroux wishes her problems could be so simple. The Lady's Secret was supposed to be a routine exercise for Azeri. Going a middle distance on a fast California racetrack is what made her famous in the first place. But there she was on Sunday, moping around the first turn near the back of the pack, barely going through the motions before finally plodding up for a meaningless third. She was later moved up to second upon the disqualification of runner-up Elloluv.

"We were second?" said a surprised de Seroux at the barn, nearly three full hours after the Lady's Secret dust had settled. "I didn't know."

It wasn't a surprise. For a year and a half, it has been Azeri first and the rest didn't matter. Secondary prizes have not been an issue. Little wonder that de Seroux had her head down and brows knit trying to figure out why Azeri acted so unlike Azeri on this particular day.

It wasn't the weight. Azeri's 128 pounds was comparable to the 127 she carried at Del Mar, when she defeated Got Koko easily in their previous start.

It wasn't the track, since Azeri has been one of those champions who can run on anything - "on ground glass," insisted her jockey, Mike Smith.

And it certainly wasn't the ride, despite the public protestations by owner Michael Paulson, who faulted Smith for placing Azeri too far off the pace. Azeri was sluggish and unresponsive from the start, giving Smith little choice but to bide his time and wait for the mare to take the bit and get serious.

After a postrace scoping, de Seroux discovered that Azeri had bled. The news offered cold comfort, since the trainer now has to be concerned with why Azeri bled and the effects of the exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.

"That could be the answer," de Seroux said. "They didn't beat Azeri today. It was something else. But when a horse bleeds, they need to be watched carefully. It can be traumatic. They can be leery of what may have caused the bleeding and loss of air, and be waiting for it to happen again."

As de Seroux spoke, Azeri stood nearby, looking bright and collected, polos and bell boots in place as she prepared to load onto a van. Soon, she would be back in her stall at San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, breathing the sweet atmosphere of northeastern San Diego County rather than the noxious, smoggy excuse for air that clung to the foothills near Santa Anita. De Seroux saw her champion safely on board and then put on a brave front.

"It was a mean run, wasn't it?" she said. "This is why it was so important that we cherish everything she did while she was doing it, because it was so remarkable. And you know, I don't think the story is over yet."

If true, that is good news, because a Breeders' Cup without Azeri would be a dull Breeders' Cup indeed.