05/22/2003 12:00AM

Rare Horse of the Year sighting

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It turns out that the appearance of Azeri in the Milady Handicap on Saturday at Hollywood Park has a significance beyond the mere thrill of an encounter with the reigning Horse of the Year. Apparently, it doesn't happen very often, especially at Hollywood Park.

That is surprising, since Hollywood Park has welcomed a carload of great champions through the years, including Seabiscuit, who won the first Hollywood Gold Cup in 1938, and Citation, who became the game's first millionaire at Hollywood in 1950.

In modern times, the Horse of the Year rarely sticks around to take a victory lap. Azeri is the first reigning Horse of the Year since Sunday Silence, 13 years ago, to show up at Hollywood Park. Since then, they have been routinely retired, either because of injury or economic opportunity - or a convenient combination of both.

Criminal Type, Black Tie Affair, A.P. Indy, Kotashaan, Skip Away, Charismatic, and Point Given never raced again after being crowned. Favorite Trick, Horse of the Year at age 2, never ventured farther west than Churchill Downs when he was 3. Cigar, Horse of the Year in 1995, would have run in the 1996 Hollywood Gold Cup had he not reinjured his foot in the Massachusetts Handicap. Tiznow, the 2000 champ who trained across town at Santa Anita, was nursing a bad back and missed the 2001 Hollywood meet.

The list of HOY's who put their reputations on the line at Hollywood makes for more interesting reading. Besides Azeri and Sunday Silence, there have been only seven, including Challedon, who represents both the yin and the yang of racehorse endeavor.

After being acclaimed the ultimate champ of 1939, Challedon won the 1940 Hollywood Gold Cup on the way to his second straight title as Horse of the Year. He returned to Hollywood in 1941, in poor form and past his prime, with owner William Brann in pursuit of Seabiscuit's money-winning record. The result was an eighth-place finish in the American Handicap.

Arts and Letters, Horse of the Year in 1969, broke down at Hollywood Park in 1970 while trying to win the Californian. His stablemate, Fort Marcy, picked up the torch and was Horse of the Year in 1970. In 1971 he finished a close second to Cougar II in Hollywood's Invitational Turf Handicap.

Affirmed was at ease anywhere, but Hollywood felt like home. He won a division of the Juvenile Championship at age 2 and took the Hollywood Derby just before his Triple Crown series at 3. As 1978 Horse of the Year, he ran twice during the 1979 Hollywood season, winning both the Californian and the Hollywood Gold Cup.

All Along was Horse of the Year in both Europe and North America in 1983. The following year, she turned up at Hollywood Park with the rest of the known racing world for the first Breeders' Cup, run on Nov. 10. She finished second in the Breeders' Cup Turf, beaten only a neck by Lashkari.

And even though Ferdinand recorded his greatest victories at Hollywood Park in the 1987 Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic, that provided very little comfort as his form eroded in 1988. As reigning Horse of the Year, he could do no better than fourth in the Californian and a distance third in the Gold Cup.

That leaves Kelso. Five-time Horse of the Year Kelso. You would think, in a career that spanned parts of eight seasons and 39 wins in 63 starts, he would have wandered West at least once. And he did, in the spring of 1964, with three Horse of the Year titles already to his name.

"We actually came out the year before to run in the Santa Anita Handicap," said Carl Hanford, Kelso's trainer, who celebrated his 87th birthday in March at his home near Delaware Park.

"He was working well, too, there at Santa Anita," Hanford went on. "Then he had a bit of stifle trouble, going a little off in behind, right before the race. So we shipped him on back."

When Kelso returned to California in 1964, Hanford circled the seven-furlong Los Angeles Handicap on May 23 for the champ's first start of the season. Kelso ran eighth that day under 130 pounds, beating only one horse, then ran a troubled yet equally disappointing sixth in the subsequent Hollywood Gold Cup.

"He was a horse who never went off his feed, but he did, there at Hollywood Park," Hanford said. "He didn't even act like himself.

"It wasn't the track," Hanford said, still fishing for answers nearly 40 years later. "He could run anywhere. There was a loudspeaker in the stable next to us making announcements all the time, and that could have made him upset. I didn't tell anybody, but I finally cut the wires to the thing. Still, that didn't do any good."

Once back home in New York, Kelso went on to record some of his greatest triumphs during the 1964 campaign, including the Aqueduct Handicap over Gun Bow, the Jockey Club Gold Cup over Roman Brother, and the Washington D.C. International in American record time for 1 1/2 miles on the grass.

"I truly wanted the people in California to see him run," Hanford added. "They did, but as far as I'm concerned, they never saw the real Kelso."