06/16/2004 11:00PM

Slightly tarnished stars

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Jack Coady/Coady Photography
Azeri, a former Horse of the Year and the defending champion older female, seeks to redeem herself in Satuday's Grade 1 Ogden Phipps after having been beaten in her last two starts.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Eight months ago, a matchup between Azeri and Sightseek would have been a battle to decide a divisional championship. But, an injury knocked Azeri out of the Breeders' Cup Distaff and Sightseek finished fourth as the 3-5 favorite. Azeri won the title when longshot Adoration won the Distaff.

Saturday, when the two mares meet for the first time in the Grade 1, $300,000 at Belmont Park, it will be a battle for survival in a wide-open division in search of a leader.

Azeri and Sightseek have combined to win 24 of 35 starts, including 13 Grade 1 stakes. Both, however, enter the Phipps off terrible performances. Azeri had more of an excuse in that she ventured outside her division when taking on males in the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap, where she finished eighth, beaten 6 3/4 lengths. Sightseek, on the other hand, finished fourth as the 2-5 favorite in the Louisville Breeders' Cup Handicap over a sloppy Churchill Downs track.

Grade 1 winners Storm Flag Flying - the 2002 champion juvenile filly - and Passing Shot round out the four-horse field. The Phipps, run at 1 1/16 miles will be the ninth race on a 10-race card that begins at 1 p.m. Eastern.

Sightseek returns to Belmont Park, where she is 3 for 3, including wins in last year's Phipps and Beldame. Trainer Bobby Frankel believes Sightseek is "acting even better'' than she did leading into last year's Phipps, but he still has some reservations because Sightseek has lost three of her last four starts.

"She's run some disappointing races, but she's doing so well,'' Frankel said. "You wonder.''

Frankel is also concerned that the Phipps favors the front-running Azeri, who breaks from the rail under Pat Day. Sightseek will leave from post 3 under Jerry Bailey.

"The other filly's going to be on an easy lead,'' Frankel said.

In addition to facing fillies and mares, Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year and two-time champion older female, returns to her favorite distance of 1 1/16 miles. Azeri is 8 for 9 at that distance, though all of those wins have come around two turns and the Phipps is contested around one turn. Azeri proved she could handle one turn when she ran a gallant second to Mayo on the Side in the Humana Distaff, a race in which Azeri encountered trouble and conceded 11 pounds to the winner.

In the Met Mile, Azeri stalked the pace from the inside and her connections did not believe she was comfortable being stuck on the rail.

"Michael Paulson commented she never really liked running on the inside,'' Peter Hutton, the New York-based assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, said, referring to Azeri's owner. "Wayne and everyone thought the track was dead. Everything in the race, other than the winner, just looked beat up in the stretch. They're Grade 1 horses. They shouldn't have been as leg-weary as they were. She came back fine and has had a couple of nice works in between.''

Azeri arrived at Belmont Park on Thursday morning following a 10-hour van ride from Kentucky.

Like Azeri, Storm Flag Flying is a former champion trying to regain her form. In winning the Grade 2 Shuvee Handicap last month, Storm Flag Flying showed some of the same determination she did as a 2-year-old when she finally switched leads in deep stretch and ran down Passing Shot and Roar Emotion.

Storm Flag Flying was bred by Ogden Phipps, for whom this race was renamed in memoriam last year. Storm Flag Flying goes out for trainer Shug McGaughey, who, like Lukas, has won this race - formerly the Hempstead Handicap - three times. Storm Flag Flying gets in with 117 pounds and is 3 for 4 over Belmont's main track.

Allen Jerkens has made a career winning races like this with outsiders. Though Passing Shot is a Grade 1 winner, she figures to be the longest price on the board.

The field

Ogden Phipps Handicap
Purse: $300,000; 1 1/16 Miles; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYWT.ODDS
1AzeriP. Day1236-5
2Passing ShotR. Migliore1168-1
3SightseekJ. Bailey1209-5
4Storm Flag FlyingJ. Velazquez1172-1

* Odds by Dan Illman