05/28/2004 11:00PM

Smith still in Azeri's corner

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Bending Strings, winning the Nassau County Breeders' Cup on May 8, is 0 for 2 at the one-mile distance of Friday's Grade 1 Acorn.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Mike Smith was planning to spend the entire Memorial Day weekend in New York. Instead, Smith was expected to fly home to California on Saturday night after riding Moscow Burning to victory in the Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont Park.

Until last Tuesday, Smith said he thought he was going to ride Azeri in Monday's Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap. After all, Smith had guided Azeri to 15 wins and 3 seconds from

18 career starts. Azeri was voted 2002 Horse of the Year and is a two-time winner of the Eclipse Award for older filly and mare.

But owner Michael Paulson and trainer D. Wayne Lukas opted to make a change in rider for the Met to Pat Day. Publicly, Paulson said the decision was made because Azeri would be racing primarily on the East Coast this year, and it would be easier to get the Midwest-based Day to ride than Smith. Smith said he was never told why he got replaced.

"She's a champion, and anytime you get taken off a champion it's going to sting a little," said Smith, who also won Saturday's second race aboard Ball Four. "But, I'm very grateful to have been able to have ridden her. She came along at a point in my career when I really needed something like that. She was a shot in the arm and more. Whatever reason they have is the reason they have, and I got to respect it."

Azeri, who arrived in New York on Saturday, will face males for the first time in the Met Mile. She enters the race off a head loss to Mayo on the Side in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on Derby Day. Azeri had to check a couple of times in the race after getting bumped at the break.

"I think we would have won if that doesn't happen," Smith said. "It was seven-eighths, and she wasn't used to sprinting, and you had probably the best filly sprinters in the country in that race. It's her stamina that makes her who she is."

While many handicappers believe Azeri could be part of a wicked pace in the Met Mile, Smith said that does not have to be the case.

"What a lot of people don't really understand about Azeri is she can come from off of it," Smith said. "She doesn't have to be on the lead. Some of her best races early on in her career, she came from off of the pace."

Though he will be 3,000 miles away, Smith said his heart will be with Azeri on Monday.

"I'm her number one fan," Smith said. "Ain't nobody going to be rooting any harder for [her]. It's no shame for her to win without me on her."

McLaughlin feels better about Acorn

After Bending Strings won the Grade 2 Nassau County Breeders' Cup by 4 3/4 lengths May 8, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin sounded less than enthusiastic about running her back in the Grade 1 Acorn on Friday against the likes of Ashado and Madcap Escapade.

But now that both of those horses have defected from the race, McLaughlin says he is excited about running Bending Strings in the Acorn.

"It's great. The fewer the better," McLaughlin said. "I have a lot of respect for both those fillies. Victory U. S. A. is coming, but our filly's training very well. She should like the distance, and she's run over the track. It's a Grade 1, and there should be some tough fillies in there."

Bending Strings is 0 for 2 at the one-mile distance of the Acorn, finishing second against males in the Golden State Mile at Golden Gate in February and second behind Society Selection in the Grade 3 Comely at Aqueduct.

McLaughlin said Pat Day would probably ride Bending Strings in the Acorn. Others pointing to the race include Bohemian Lady, Friendly Michelle, Island Sand, La Reina, Pawyne Princess, and Society Selection. Daydreaming, Elusive Diva, Ender's Sister are listed as possible.

Ghostzapper prepping for Tom Fool

Ghostzapper, who has not run since winning last September's Vosburgh Handicap, worked four furlongs in 48.97 seconds Saturday morning over a Belmont main track labeled good.

It was Ghostzapper's second work since coming to New York. He had been training steadily in Southern California before a bruised foot stopped him in mid-April. Frankel says he is hoping to have Ghostzapper ready for the Grade 2 Tom Fool Handicap on July 5.

"He's pretty fit, he should get ready in a hurry," Frankel said. "If everything goes right, he should be ready for the Tom Fool."