03/11/2006 1:00AM

Round Pond victorious in Azeri

Sunny Taylor/Coady Photography
Round Pond wins the Azeri Breeders' Cup on Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - In a race that will go down as one of the most exciting in the history of Oaklawn Park, Round Pond edged Happy Ticket by a neck after a stretch long battle to win the Grade 3, $175,000 before a crowd of 22,908 on Saturday.

"Somebody made the comment it reminded them of Easy Goer and Sunday Silence at the eighth pole and it did," said John Servis, who trains Round Pond. "Two quality horses and they weren't giving an inch."

Round Pond, who carried four less pounds than Happy Ticket, broke on top in the mile and a sixteenth race for fillies and mares, and was soon joined on the front end by Happy Ticket.

Round Pond set the pace from the rail, as Happy Ticket sat just off her through fractions of 23.96 for the opening quarter; 48.51 for the half-mile mark; and 1:13.65 for six furlongs. Round Pond, who was ridden by Stewart Elliott, and Happy Ticket, under Robby Albarado, dueled through the stretch, with Round Pond winning the photo and covering the distance over a fast track in 1:43.93.

"She broke sharp, which we hoped for and it pretty much just developed like I thought," said Elliott. "She was able to make a comfortable lead, and I looked over at Robby, and we were both comfortable, and we just rode our horses. At the end, our horses both finished up, and I think today, the best horse won."

Round Pond earned $105,000 for the win, which was her sixth from eight career starts. She has now earned $596,300. Round Pond is a 4-year-old by Awesome Again, and she races for Fox Hill Farms.

Happy Ticket, who finished a length and a quarter clear of third-place finisher Platinum Ballet, was game to the wire Saturday.

"I sat right off the leader and was in a good spot to get by her in the stretch, which my [mare] did just briefly," said Albarado. "But right at the wire, she came back and nipped us. It was a great race for both of them."

The Azeri was the prep for the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn on April 8, and that is the goal for both Round Pond and Happy Ticket.

The remaining Azeri order of finish was La Reason, Took Out and Daddy's Petunia. Round Pond paid $3.60 as the 3-5 favorite Saturday.

* Handle on the 11-race card was $6,864,757, with $1,826,755 of that amount bet ontrack at Oaklawn.