09/20/2004 11:00PM

Weigelia, Maria's Image give barn a lift


MIAMI - Trainer Manny Azpurua's 2004 campaign got off to a rocky start to say the least. After guiding Sir Oscar through a perfect 2-year-old season, which included a sweep of the Florida Stallion Stakes, Azpurua had the young prospect removed from his barn by the horse's owner the morning after the colt suffered his first career defeat in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 14.

Azpurua took the loss in stride and now, seven months later, has not only a better 3-year-old in the barn but also a couple of other stakes winners. Among them is Maria's Image, who shook up the filly and mare handicap division with a surprising 1 3/4-length victory over Pampered Princess in Sunday's Emergency Nurse Stakes.

While Sir Oscar has failed to return to his top 2-year-old form, finishing off the board and losing by double-digit lengths in all five of his starts this year, Azpurua has quietly developed Weigelia into one of the premier 3-year-old sprinters in the country.

A son of Safely's Mark, Weigelia most recently ran second to Pomeroy in Saratoga's Grade 1 King's Bishop Stakes. Earlier this summer, Weigelia won the Grade 3 Carry Back at Calder and finished a troubled third in Saratoga's Grade 2 Amsterdam.

"I believe he's one of the best sprinters in the country right now," said Azpurua, adding that Weigelia will make his next start in the seven-furlong Perryville Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 14. "Unfortunately, he is not Breeders' Cup eligible, so its unlikely we'll consider the Sprint."

Azpurua also has a couple of races picked out next month for Gold Dollar, who finished a fast-closing second behind Twilight Road in the Grade 3 Miami Mile Breeders' Cup here on Sept. 11. Seven days earlier, Gold Dollar finished sixth in the Grade 1 Forego Handicap at Saratoga.

"He'd only gotten back here from Saratoga two days before his last race, and if the rider had kept him closer to the pace like I'd instructed instead of having him nearly 20 lengths out of it, I think he would have won," said Azpurua. "There are two races coming up for him next month, the Flying Pidgeon on the turf [Oct. 9] and the Spend a Buck on dirt [Oct. 23], and I might run him in both."

Meanwhile, Maria's Image scored the unlikeliest of victories in the Emergency Nurse. Stretching out around two turns for only the third time in her career - and the first since beaten nearly 30 lengths going 1 1/16 miles under entry-level allowance conditions in December - she set the early pace then reasserted herself after being passed by both Pampered Princess and Firm Reality in early stretch to win going away. She paid $37.80, and the performance will likely earn her a spot in the $100,000 Shocker T. Handicap on Oct. 23.

* Paul Toscano has been named Calder's jockey of the month for September. He moved into the top 10 in the standings with his 40th victory of the meet earlier this week. He rode the biggest win of his career earlier this season when he captured the Grade 2 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway aboard Sinister G. That victory was all the more special since Sinister G. is trained by his father, John Toscano.