04/05/2004 12:00AM

Two champs strut their stuff

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park last Saturday was an example of two great professionals doing what they do best. That's winning for Azeri and training for D. Wayne Lukas.

Azeri, who was Horse of the Year in 2002 and champion mare in 2003, returned from a six-month layoff to win the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom for a record third time. The race was her first start for Hall of Fame trainer Lukas, and she won in a field that included Grade 1 winners Wild Spirit, Star Parade, and Island Fashion.

To have Azeri right on for a race of the Apple Blossom's caliber following a long layoff is a feat that has to be respected. Laura de Seroux, former trainer of Azeri, brought the mare back from a five-month layoff to win the race over Take Charge Lady in 2003.

This year, Lukas prepared Azeri, now 6, to do battle. And battle she did. Azeri wired the field and ran her fastest Apple Blossom time ever, covering 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.24. She earned a career-best 112 Beyer Speed Figure.

It was a powerful race that signaled Azeri will be a major factor in major races again this year. For his part, Lukas was quick to deflect all credit to the mare, who races for the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust.

"One thing about the horse business," he said. "The good ones make you look good. They always make you look good."

Still, the foundation Lukas put in Azeri was evident the morning after the race. Azeri was bright-eyed, alert, and energetic.

"Believe it or not, it did not seem to be a hard race on her," he said. "She was very difficult to pull up. She didn't want to stop. She cooled out quickly, and was out grazing, just attacking that grass. She was full of herself this morning. I think it was just a win-win situation all the way around."

Azeri was to fly to Kentucky on Monday. Her next start could come at Churchill Downs in either the Grade 2, $300,000 Louisville Breeders' Cup at 1 1/16 miles on April 30, or the Grade 1, $250,000 Humana Distaff at seven furlongs May 1.

"The thing that kind of clouds the picture a little bit is that the Humana's a Grade 1," Lukas said. "The purse money's pretty much the same, and we'd like to rack up those grade ones. We think she's got seven-eighths capabilities, and might even excel at that distance."

Lukas said a decision on which race Azeri goes in will be made after he watches her train. Later this year, Azeri will be based in New York after having spent the past two seasons in Southern California.

She came to Lukas in December. De Seroux withdrew Azeri from the Breeders' Cup Distaff last year, citing an inflamed tendon. Azeri was sent to Kentucky for a brief while, and after receiving clearances from separate equine hospitals, she resumed training, but with Lukas.

On the outside looking in, the situation seemed like a pressure-filled one for Lukas.

"I didn't feel the pressure, because I knew I was dealing with a real special talent," he said of Azeri.

Dominguez on Shake You Down

Ramon Dominguez, who is the nation's second leading rider in wins, has been named to ride Shake You Down in the Grade 3, $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn on Thursday.

Dominguez replaces Mike Luzzi, who has been a regular on Shake You Down.

The field from the rail with riders: Skeet, John McKee; Was My Case, Roman Chapa; Beau's Town, Jamie Theriot; That Tat, Eddie Martin, Jr.; Where's the Ring, Don Pettinger; Aloha Bold, Lonnie Meche; and Shake You Down.

Shadow Cast in Fantasy

Shadow Cast, winner of the Grade 2 Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds, was one of 11 fillies entered in the Grade 2, $200,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies at Oaklawn, to be run Friday.

Calvin Borel will ride Shadow Cast for trainer Neil Howard.

The field from the rail with riders is House of Fortune, Alex Solis; Slewpy's Storm, Tony D'Amico, Elusive Diva, Jose Valdivia, Stephan's Angel, Stewart Elliott, Miss Coronado, Cornelio Velasquez; Shadow Cast; True Blonde Beauty, Jamie Theriot; Yoursmineours, Don Pettinger; Stellar Jayne, John McKee; Platinum Ballet, Willie Martinez; and Island Sand, Terry Thompson.