05/26/2003 11:00PM

Time to face the boys?

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Call it the Sorenstam Syndrome. Blame it on Annika.

The sudden appetite for cross-gender sports pollination is gnawing in all directions, fueled primarily by sporting-event sponsors and their publicists, cleverly disguised as media. In the wake of Sorenstam's swing at the men in Texas, can others be far behind? How about Mia Hamm suiting up with the American lads against Manchester United? Or Paula Radcliffe switching sides in the Athens Olympic marathon? Or Serena Williams taking on Lleyton Hewitt this summer at Flushing Meadows?

On Saturday afternoon at Hollywood Park, Azeri had barely pulled up on the backstretch after her dominating performance in the Milady Handicap before the clamor began: When will she run against the boys?

The reigning Horse of the Year had just won her ninth straight race, dating back to March 2002. She had carried 125 pounds in very fast time, turning away three separate challenges during the course of the 1 1/16 miles. She was willing to pose for photographs, and both her trainer and her owner were ready to talk about Azeri for as long as the press had questions. Apparently they had only one.

When will she run against the boys?

This is the price Azeri and her people pay for their willingness to run in race after race, month after month, taking on the traditional challenges of a tradition-oriented game. This is what happens when they have answered all the questions, save one. But what if that one, lingering question is the wrong one?

Of course, Azeri suffers from precedent. For as long as there have been great mares and grand fillies, they have been tested from time to time against the males. And while lightning strikes occasionally, few of them succeed on a regular basis. Such serial gender-benders as Regret, Gallorette, and All Along are the sweet exceptions.

It's fun when it happens. It's rare when it does. And when it goes wrong - like it did when Ruffian died trying to beat Foolish Pleasure - the consequences can imprint the psyche of an entire generation.

Ron McAnally, for one, would love to see Azeri run against the boys. As the trainer of Affluent, one of the best of her division, he has grown weary of the sight of his chestnut chasing that other chestnut. In the Milady, Affluent attacked Azeri on the final turn and was dusted off like dandruff. McAnally was asked if Affluent would be running against Azeri again any time soon. The answer came unembellished.

"No," McAnally replied.

In fact, McAnally joked that Affluent might try the boys just to stay away from Azeri. Not likely, though. The Hall of Famer has been burned before, with such good ones as Bayakoa, Paseana, and Zalataia losing face in top open company.

"I would think it would have to be a very masculine mare to run well against males," McAnally said. "Even then, if I were going to hook them, I'd try to get out in front of them - if I had enough speed."

Both Paseana and Bayakoa had speed - especially Bayakoa - and neither one could cope with the physical challenges presented by open company. Azeri has plenty of speed, no question about that. And there could be a middle-distance race in the open handicap division that would be ripe for her style of running. But what, exactly, is the point?

"When you run on the dirt, there's always someone going out there and running too fast," said Laura de Seroux, Azeri's trainer. "It happens especially with the colts."

Speed kills, when it comes to Thoroughbreds. But most Thoroughbreds know when to shut it down and live to fight another day. De Seroux is convinced that Azeri belongs to that rarefied class of runners who know only one way to run - as fast and as hard as they can, until someone says "whoa."

"Azeri tries," de Seroux said. "I saw what she did in the Milady, how she lays it down whenever she is challenged. I saw that even more clearly in the Apple Blossom" - when the champ caught Take Charge Lady at the wire in Azeri's first start of the year - "and she would do the same thing against the boys.

"It's my duty to realize that, and to protect her," de Seroux said. "I would put her at risk, and I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to make any foolish moves."

As reigning Horse of the Year, Azeri must fall dramatically below her own lofty standards if she is to relinquish her crown. So far, that does not look like it will happen. The only real threat would be a Triple Crown, and if Funny Cide wins the Belmont, the race is over. No Triple Crown winner has ever been denied Horse of the Year, and there would be nothing Azeri could do to prevent it.

So let's be content with the guaranteed pleasures that are already provided by Azeri. Let her run up her winning streak and arrive at the Breeders' Cup Distaff this October at Santa Anita Park going for her 13th straight victory in major competition.

Like her trainer said, shaking her head over the speculative fuss following the Milady, "Wasn't Saturday's race exciting enough?"