09/24/2003 12:00AM

Which path for Azeri?

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Azeri, at San Luis Rey Downs training center on Tuesday, faces a tough prep in the Lady's Secret.

BONSALL, Calif. - Azeri emerged from her stall, the tack set squarely on her back, her four legs wrapped in white polo bandages. Awaiting a rider to get on her back, she stood regally, as though looking over her subjects.

"Hail the queen," her trainer, Laura de Seroux, said, chuckling.

Azeri has ruled racing for nearly the past two years. Sure, there have been flavors of the month in the spring, when the Triple Crown is the focus, and in the summer, when the older horses compete in a flurry of Grade 1 races, but Azeri has continued to march onward with remarkable consistency. The 2002 Horse of the Year has won 14 of 15 starts, and has run her win streak to 11. She is the 7-5 favorite on the early line of Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, to repeat in this year's $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff.

This year's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships will be held Oct. 25 at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, which previously played host to the Breeders' Cup in 1986 and 1993. There are eight Breeders' Cup races - the Distaff, Juvenile Fillies, Mile, Sprint, Filly and Mare Turf, Juvenile, Turf, and Classic - worth a total of $14 million.

With the Breeders' Cup a little more than four weeks away, the countdown has begun. The last major round of prep races will be held over the next two weekends. This week's most important races feature the two leading contenders for Horse of the Year. Azeri is scheduled to run in the Grade 2, $300,000 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sunday's opening-day card at Oak Tree. And on Saturday, Mineshaft, the nation's top older male, will compete in the Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Azeri has been assigned 128 pounds, the highest impost of her career. Five horses - Adoration, Elloluv, Got Koko, Royally Chosen, and Tropical Blossom - are scheduled to face Azeri, and they will be in receipt of as much as 20 pounds from her.

The quality of competition is the steepest Azeri has faced since her first start of the year, when she rallied to catch Take Charge Lady in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Elloluv, who won the Ashland Stakes, has dangerous early speed, similar to Azeri. Got Koko is a Santa Anita specialist, having swept the three-race La Canada Series.

Azeri, who is based at San Luis Rey Downs in San Diego County, was scheduled to be sent by van to Santa Anita on Thursday morning. De Seroux said she would have schooling sessions on Friday and Saturday mornings.

Azeri's overall record and standard of excellence have inspired awe, but there is an undercurrent of resentment toward Azeri. There largely are two areas of criticism. Her campaign this year has closely mirrored last year's. And she has yet to face males.

De Seroux, stung by some of the criticism, and seeking to explain her decisions to just about any detractor, has taken to the Internet in recent weeks, answering questions in chat rooms about those topics, as well as the outright bizarre, such as why Azeri has not sprinted this year.

De Seroux said this year's campaign was designed to have Azeri "be at her best on Breeders' Cup Day."

"If the Breeders' Cup was in New York, then she'd run in the Beldame and stay there," said de Seroux, referring to Belmont Park's Oct. 4 prep for the Distaff. "With the Breeders' Cup here, there's no reason to ship."

As for facing males, de Seroux has left open the possibility of putting Azeri in the $4 million Classic on Breeders' Cup Day. The complexion of the Classic, both in terms of competition and early pace, are de Seroux's primary concerns.

The Classic has had several key defections already, such as Candy Ride and Perfect Drift. Empire Maker's status is questionable in light of this week's foot injury. And Mineshaft is not a certainty to come to California for the Classic.

Still, de Seroux is apprehensive about facing the likes of Medaglia d'Oro and Congaree in a fast-paced, 1 1/4-mile race. But if things change over the next four weeks, de Seroux said she is "not opposed to taking on colts."

"I thought we'd have done it by now, but it just hasn't been the right circumstances," she said.

One race that was considered was this summer's Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. Michael Paulson, who controls the Allen Paulson Living Trust, which owns Azeri, lobbied for Azeri to go to the Whitney, but was dissuaded by de Seroux, who cited concerns over possible heat and rainy weather.

"Laura has been a little more on the conservative side," Paulson said Wednesday. "I'm the one opening the envelope saying, 'Let's look at this.' It's nice to have a horse with so many options.

"Our goal is to come away from Breeders' Cup Day with a victory. I'd love to repeat in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Bayakoa is the only one who has done it. We really think Azeri would be right there if she ran in the Classic. We're trying to do what's best for the horse. We're trying to maintain the division lead. We want to keep the win streak going. And we want to win the older filly and mare division."

Even if Azeri goes in the Distaff, it will not be a walkover. Sightseek, her primary rival, is doing "great, great," her trainer, Bobby Frankel, said Wednesday. Sightseek is scheduled to race next in the Grade 1, $750,000 Beldame, where her rivals will include 3-year-olds Buy the Sport and Island Fashion.

Frankel also trains Wild Spirit, though that South American import would have to be supplemented to the Distaff for $400,000. Wild Spirit is scheduled to race in Keeneland's Grade 1, $500,000 Overbrook Spinster Stakes on Oct. 5, where she will face Take Charge Lady, who is unbeaten at Keeneland and is the Spinster's defending champion. The Frankel-trained You also could run there.

Summer Colony will run in the Beldame or Spinster. Lady Tak could run in one of those races, or skip both and go straight to the Distaff. Bare Necessities is being freshened and will not race again this year. Spoken Fur is moving to the turf for her next start.