06/26/2002 11:00PM

The San Luis Rey Downs A's


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The best Thoroughbred mare in America was curled up in a corner of a turn-out pen, basking in the sun like the family pooch. Her head was heavy. Her eyes were slits. A warm breeze tickled the tall palms standing nearby.

At the same time, about 30 feet away, the other best Thoroughbred mare in America was fussing on a wash rack, attacking the wooden shed row railing as her groom, Robert Morales, gave her a bath. She stomped her size-eight, pie plate feet. She swished her long, dark tail. She looked for trouble.

Azeri, the travel-size chestnut dozing in the pen, has won the Santa Margarita, Apple Blossom, Milady, and Vanity handicaps this season to rank atop all older fillies and mares in main track competition. Jeff Ford, who has been with Azeri since she was a baby, goes where she goes and has a hard time hiding his affection whenever he mentions her name.

"She's just precious," Ford said. "And she has never changed."

The same can't quite be said of Astra, the hard case on the wash rack. More often than not, she reduces the opposition to tears. Azeri is so mellow, you could sleep in her stall. To nest with Astra, you would need a shark cage.

Fortunately, she is worth the trouble. Astra has spent the last three seasons as one of North America's finest mares on grass, winning such major handicaps as the Santa Barbara (twice), the Gamely (twice), and the 2001 Beverly Hills.

If Astra can defend her Beverly Hills title on Saturday at Hollywood Park, she will be the one to beat for the division championship down the line.

Astra has beaten Voodoo Dancer, Starine, and Golden Apples in her last two races, the Santa Barbara and the Gamely. For now, that is good enough to call her the best, at least until she heads east as planned for Arlington's Beverly D.

Astra and Azeri live at San Luis Rey Downs, the training center owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., located amidst upscale housing developments and avocado groves some 80 miles southeast of Hollywood Park.

A road map helps. From either L.A. or San Diego, California State Highway 76 runs east from Oceanside, where it meets Interstate 5. The route goes past the mission of San Luis Rey de Francia (built in 1798), shrinks from six lanes to two, and finally reaches the tiny town of Bonsall (pop. 3,400), which is named for a retired Methodist minister.

Bonsall is a bit more modest than Saratoga Springs. Sidewalks are in the planning stage. Still, the Village Center does provide a tack store, a women's fitness center, a deli, a donut shop, and the Ringers cocktail lounge, offering both dancing and live music. Visitors can get a tattoo across the street.

San Luis Rey Downs is about mile away, on the south side of the San Luis Rey River and across the street from the entrance to the San Luis Rey Downs Golf and Country Club. Public welcome.

Astra and Azeri live three stalls apart in the stables of Narvick International, where Laura de Seroux heads the training and her husband, Emmanuel, scours the world to match horses with clients.

On this particular morning, Astra went through her final gallop before vanning north to Hollywood Park for the Beverly Hills. Azeri was taking it easy, since she already did her share last weekend in the Vanity.

"What is she doing now?" Laura de Seroux said, her eye on Astra and rider Martin Mesa as they sidestepped around the first turn of the one-mile training track. That was not the plan.

"We play definition games to pass the time in the mornings," said de Seroux. "Now that everyone knows the meaning of 'obstreperous' and 'recalcitrant,' we can use them for Astra."

The big bay mare is definitely a piece of work. She is demanding, independent, and has had her share of nagging problems, including a bowel blockage last year and a skin disease that kept her out of a race earlier this year. Indeed, if Astra had her choice, there would never be a saddle in sight. Few things annoy her more than a cinched girth.

"Watch this," de Seroux said earlier, when Astra was about to emerge from her stall. "We have to be careful when we saddle her or else she might be a vet scratch."

Right on cue, Astra stepped into the shed row aisle, walking as if her pants were on way too tight. The complaint is called "cinchy," which is why fans will see Astra come over to the Hollywood saddling paddock wearing a surcingle to desensitize the girth area.

De Seroux, who began training for the Allen Paulson Living Trust last year, learned to compensate for such eccentricities from her days as an exercise rider with Charlie Whittingham. Now she is winning the kind of races Whittingham collected in bundles. "I had some sleepless nights before the Gamely," de Seroux said, "and then I was concerned over how she so completely switched off during the first part of that race."

Her trepidation may have been warranted. Astra was all out to edge Starine by a head. Are Astra's fans in for another heart-stopper on Saturday?

"Since the Gamely, she's done nothing but go forward," de Seroux warned. "I've never felt this good about her going into a race."