06/23/2003 12:00AM

Which path should Azeri follow?


NEW YORK - Jockey Mike Smith was speaking for pretty much all of us when, after Azeri walked her beat in Saturday's Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, he said he was running out of things to say about the reigning Horse of the Year. Indeed, the accolades were exhausted a while ago, because this was the umpteenth time that Azeri had proven to be superior to any female that California, or almost any other state, can put up against her.

So where Azeri goes from here? It seems that principal owner Michael Paulson and trainer Laura de Seroux have two ways to go: They could, for the first time in Azeri's career, tackle males in races such as the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar or the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. Or, they could be more conservative and keep Azeri with females in a race such as Del Mar's Clement Hirsch, and perhaps even make a run at the modern-day record of 16 consecutive victories shared by Citation and Cigar. Both courses have their pluses and drawbacks.

If Azeri's connections do opt for a race against males, and she wins, it would go a long way toward satisfying a lot of the purists who have so far been reluctant to classify her with the greats. Mares such as Ruffian, Personal Ensign, Shuvee, and Twilight Tear all ran against males, and most of them defeated males.

The nature of the two races under consideration for Azeri, however, leaves open some negative possibilities. Chances are the Whitney will come up very tough. It usually does. If the Whitney comes up especially tough, there is the possibility that whatever ceiling Azeri has will be exposed, and her star bubble will burst. The San Diego can either come up just as tough as the Whitney, or it could be a classified allowance race in stakes clothing. If the second scenario occurs, what would a victory by Azeri really prove?

As an aside, the Hollywood Gold Cup, which is coming up on the short side of tough, is not being considered for Azeri because she would have to run back in only three weeks. This would counter the very patient philosophy de Seroux has exhibited in her handling of Azeri. In fact, this would be the shortest time between starts in Azeri's career.

The Vanity improved Azeri's record to 13 victories from 14 starts, and was her 10th straight score. That means the win streak record shared by Citation and Cigar is within reach, especially if Azeri stays in the filly and mare ranks in a spot like the Clement Hirsch, and continues to face opposition she has already dominated. Equaling or breaking this record would probably have extra meaning since the late Allen Paulson, Michael's father, bred Azeri, and also bred and raced Cigar.

The problem with this approach, aside from alienating those who want to see Azeri prove a bit more than just whipping the same old, tired group of manes and tails, is that it means Azeri will continue to be susceptible to handicap weights. After carrying 127 pounds Saturday, there is nowhere for her to go but up.

As I have said several times before, no factor in racing is more overblown than weight. Some people think that weight played a big role in the outcome of last week's Stephen Foster Handicap, specifically the eight pounds narrow winner Perfect Drift pulled from runner-up Mineshaft. Here's the math: Eight pounds for a horse who weights 1,100 pounds is equivalent to 1.3 pounds for a human weighing 180 pounds. If you have two human athletes, both weighing 180 pounds, one vastly superior in terms of ability than the other, in a foot race, and the superior runner has to carry 1.3 pounds more than the other, do you think it will affect the outcome of the race? I don't.

I do, however, think Azeri is nearing the territory where weight concessions may actually become a factor. In the Vanity, Azeri conceded 16 pounds to the runner- up, Sister Girl Blues. Sixteen pounds for a 1,000-pound horse (females tend to be a little lighter than males) is the equivalent of 2.9 pounds to a 180-pound human. The disparity in ability between Azeri and a Sister Girl Blues is enormous. But, no matter how well measured Azeri's victories may be, as long as she keeps on winning, the weight spreads are going to get even larger, large enough to be a real impediment.

Shift blame onto TVG's shoulders

Last week in this space, I took Hollywood Park to task for the horrendous way its races are shown on TVG. I was wrong about the culpable party. TVG is provided with feeds of all of Hollywood Park's camera angles, and TVG's directors make all the cuts, effectively deciding the way Hollywood Park's races are shown on TVG.

Why Hollywood Park would allow TVG to determine the portrayal of its product and make incessant camera cuts during the course of races on a network that is available nationwide on satellite is unclear to me, especially when Hollywood Park's track feed is a simple, clean split-screen presentation that is more than sufficient. But, at least Hollywood Park management is now aware of the frustration trip handicappers feel at attempting to follow their races on TVG, particularly when TVG is often the only live source for races at Hollywood.