06/26/2003 11:00PM

Should Azeri try males? Past says no.


PHOENIX - In his column Wednesday my colleague Mike Watchmaker pointed out the positives and negatives for the two options now in front of Azeri: staying with the females, or taking her shot against the males.

He aptly pointed out that staying with the females might lead to weight assignments that take on serious significance. Odds are, however, unless she comes up dull or someone goes through the roof while getting significant weight, she can still overcome giving away weight among the females.

The other option, tackling males in a race like the San Diego Handicap, may in the short run vault her status, but even against second-tier males this assignment would be daunting.

This isn't a knock on Azeri. What it is a knock on is for a female trying to beat top-class or near-top-class males routing on dirt. The equation is different on turf, and much of that is a function of pace. The slow early splits on turf do not wear on runners like the quicker early fractions on dirt do. So if a filly or mare possesses a strong kick - a la Pebbles, Miesque, All Along, Royal Heroine, Estrapade, Ridgewood Pearl, or other talented female runners of the recent past - she is not exposed early and can deal with males for the length of her big run, which is probably about three furlongs. She can also deal with males sprinting, since her physical prowess is less exposed over six furlongs than at a route. Filly and mares such as Very Subtle, Xtra Heat, Meafara, Ta Wee, Chou Croute, My Juliet, Desert Stormer, Safely Kept, Soviet Problem, and others have proved that. But once females start running a more than a mile on dirt against males, things get dicey.

The difficulty of early pace in top-class dirt routes is more often than not too arduous for a female against males. As Watchmaker pointed out, there have been females successful against males routing, but they are certainly the exceptions and closer examination through the past few decades shows their success rate not as high as many horseplayers probably think.

Here is a rundown of some of the best females of the past three decades facing top males routing on dirt:

* In the 1970's Chris Evert tried once - and lost. Cascapedia tried three times, ran well, but lost all three. Dahlia tried twice, lost both. Davona Dale tried twice, lost both. La Prevoyante tried once, lost. Late Bloomer tried once, lost. My Juliet tried once and won (Michigan Handicap at 1 1/8 miles). Numbered Account tried once, lost. Our Mims tried once, lost. Revidere tried once, lost. Shuvee tried five times, won twice (two JC Gold Cups). Susan's Girl tried twice, lost. Ruffian tried once, and, well, we all know what happened there. So the champion filly and mares of the 1970's went a collective 3 for 22.

* In the 1980's Althea tried three times, won once (Arkansas Derby). Brave Raj tried once, lost. Christmas Past tried twice, won one (Gulfstream Park Handicap). Family Style tried twice, lost. Genuine Risk tried four times, ran great in all four but won only once (Kentucky Derby). Glorious Song tried nine times, won three (the 1 1/8-mile Michigan Handicap, two Dominion Day handicaps). As great as Lady's Secret was, she won only once in five tries going a mile or more versus top-class males (the Whitney). Life's Magic was 0 for 8. Outstandingly tried once, lost. Personal Ensign won her only try (the Whitney, in a three-horse field). Relaxing was terrific - three wins in six tries (wins in the Gallant Fox, Assault, and John B. Campbell). Sacahuista tried once, lost. Winning Colors tried four times, won two (Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby). So the champions of the 1980's went a collective 13 for 42.

* In the 1990's the great Bayakoa was 0 for 2. Dance Smartly we will give credit for winning the only time she faced open top-class males (Molson Million). She had two other wins but those came over Canadian-breds only. Heavenly Prize tried once, lost. Meadow Star tried once, lost. Paseana tried once, lost. Serena's Song was two for six (Jim Beam, Haskell). And Silverbulletday tried once, lost. The champions of the 1990's were a collective 3 for 13.

So over the last three decades of the 20th century, the best females went a collective 19 for 77 when facing the best males routing. Admirable, but hardly brilliant. And 12 of those wins came from just five female runners.

Sure, many of the efforts we merely chalked up as "losses" were tremendous, but the point is they did lose, and in many cases they didn't lose to the best male around.

As great as she is, Azeri would be up against it. Even a race such as the San Diego Handicap, while maybe not carrying much national prominence could still draw horses such as Milwaukee Brew or Sarava or Congaree, using it as a springboard to the Pacific Classic. Doesn't that sound like water's too deep?

Note, too, those filly and mares who had the most success (Shuvee, Personal Ensign, Relaxing, and Genuine Risk) were grinders. They weren't balls of fire, like Azeri. We remember Lady's Secret and Serena's Song competing so well versus males, and they did, but the bottom line is the pair did not win often because their styles went right into the teeth of the males. Paseana ran miserably in her one shot at boys. Bayakoa ran poorly the first time tried it, then better the next time - but again, as a function of style, the females were up against it.

Azeri may well fall into the same category. I would have no problem calling her great should she continue to mow down overmatched female opposition, just as I would have no trouble calling Annika Sorenstam great should she spend the rest of her days routinely defeating the best female golfers in the world.

To continue the analogy, as much as we will remember Annika playing at Colonial, she only beat 11 male golfers in a field of 111, and she wasn't close to making the cut. It means nothing to me should Azeri go in the San Diego and run a non-threatening fourth. In other words, my sentiment for Azeri's trainer Laura de Seroux is - don't do it.