12/23/2004 12:00AM

Three-time champion Azeri retired

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Azeri, who was Horse of the Year in 2002, won divisional titles in 2002 and 2003, and this year became North America's winningest female runner of all-time in purse money, was retired Thursday, said Michael Paulson, who manages the Allen Paulson Living Trust, which owns Azeri.

last raced in the Breeders' Cup Classic, against males for the second time in her career, and finished fifth. Paulson said after that race that Azeri would be retired in 2005, but that he hoped to race her once or twice before then.

After Azeri was kept out of the Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs in November, she returned to Santa Anita. But she had not had a recorded workout since Nov. 9 at Churchill Downs, her lone work following the Classic.

"We decided to give her a rest after the Breeders' Cup," Paulson said in a telephone interview. "We brought her out to California, but then looking at the scheduling, it worked out better to retire her now. She was a fabulous horse to watch. She had guts and determination not seen in too many horses."

Azeri, a 6-year-old daughter of Jade Hunter, won 17 of 24 starts and $4,079,820. Her best year was 2002, when she was named Horse of the Year after winning 8 of 9 starts, including the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Azeri also won the Eclipse Award as best older filly or mare in 2002, and won that title again last year, despite missing the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. From early 2002 until the fall of 2003, she won 11 consecutive races.

Laura de Seroux trained Azeri through 2003, and recommended then that the mare be retired. Azeri was sent to Kentucky to recuperate from a tendon injury, but was put back in training this year by Paulson, who turned her over to trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

In her first start for Lukas, Azeri won Oaklawn Park's Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap for an unprecedented third straight year. Azeri won 3 of 8 races, all Grade 1 stakes, this year, and is a top candidate for a divisional title, which would be her third straight.

Paulson said no decision had been reached on to whom Azeri would be bred next year. "We're looking at several top stallions, like Storm Cat and A.P. Indy," he said. "We'll finalize something next week."