Updated on 09/17/2011 10:49AM

This year, the lady is the champ

Azeri, a landslide winner as Horse of the Year, is just the sixth filly to win since voting began for the award in 1936.

First, the actor Chris Cooper came to the stage. Later, Jeff Bridges. And, finally, Tobey Maguire. The principal players in the movie "Seabiscuit" gave the 32nd annual Eclipse Awards some high-voltage star power Monday in Beverly Hills, Calif., but the night belonged to a leading lady.

Azeri became the first filly since Lady's Secret in 1986 to win the golden Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year and just the sixth filly to win since voting began for the award in 1936. She also earned the trophy for champion older filly or mare. And the grace she showed on the track was matched by her trainer, Laura de Seroux, whose acceptance speech touched on Azeri's many attributes while subtly yet effectively refuting the small cadre of voters who thought Azeri unworthy of Horse of the Year.

"This is Azeri's Oscar," de Seroux said after accepting the trophy from Maguire, who accompanied Tim Smith, the commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, for the Horse of the Year announcement.

De Seroux, who became the first woman to train a Horse of the Year, said Azeri had three elements possessed by champions - class, brilliance, and consistency.

"She combined speed and stamina. She's the classic result of what every breeder strives for," de Seroux said. Referring to Azeri's consistency, de Seroux cited her lengthy campaign, from January to October, which resulted in eight victories from nine starts.

"Horse of the Year should be there all year," de Seroux said. "You did not elect her by default, but by the purest criteria."

Michael Paulson, whose late father, Allen, bred Azeri, headed a large contingent that went to the podium at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel when Azeri was announced as Horse of the Year. He had to pause while thanking de Seroux "and her staff for all their dedication," and paused anew before citing his father "for giving us Azeri."

Paulson and two brothers have a majority interest in the Allen Paulson Living Trust, which owns Azeri. Azeri and a number of other horses will be sold at public auction in March as part of the settlement of the estate. Paulson is estranged from Allen Paulson's widow, Madeleine. Michael and Madeleine Paulson sat at different tables at the Eclipse Awards, and Madeleine chose not come to the podium either for the Horse of the Year presentation or when Azeri was announced earlier as champion older filly or mare.

When Azeri's divisional title was presented, Michael Paulson was joined by Dr. Nicholas Diaco, a co-trustee in the estate. Only Michael Paulson addressed the audience at that point.

Michael Paulson said he intends to bid on Azeri when she goes through the sales ring at Barretts. He said he was eager to get Azeri back to the races, a process that has been delayed because of the dispersal of the trust.

"She will return, and when she does, she will be in the same championship form," Michael Paulson said.

Azeri was a landslide winner as Horse of the Year, receiving 189 of the 225 votes cast by members of Daily Racing Form, the National Turf Writers Association, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. She was a unanimous choice for champion older filly or mare, receiving all 227 votes cast in that category. There were 228 voters, but three abstained from voting for Horse of the Year, and one abstained from voting for champion older filly or mare.

Azeri, a chestnut daughter of Jade Hunter, was just as dominant on the track last year at age 4. Her eight victories in nine starts, all under Mike Smith, included five Grade 1 races, topped off by a powerful five-length score over Farda Amiga in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Her lone loss, a second-place finish to Summer Colony in the La Canada Stakes, came in her stakes debut in February. After that, she won seven straight races. She has now won 10 times in 11 starts, and has earned $2,227,740. Mike Smith rode Azeri in all of her races during her championship season.

The black-tie Eclipse Awards dinner had some touching moments. There were moving video presentations on Howard Battle and Ogden Phipps, who posthumously received the Eclipse Award of Merit, as well as on Seattle Slew, whose death was announced as the NTRA "Moment of the Year," and for jockeys Eddie Delahoussaye and Chris McCarron. Delahoussaye retired earlier this month and McCarron retired last year. McCarron and Gary Stevens, both of whom have roles in "Seabiscuit," also presented Eclipse Awards.

The "Seabiscuit" group sat at a table in the center of the ballroom. Bridges presented the Eclipse Award for champion owner, which was won by Richard Englander.

When Maguire came to the stage, he was asked by Tim Smith about his impression of racing, having worked on the film in recent months.

"It's been amazing to take a peek behind the curtain and see what you do," Maguire said. "I have great respect for what you do, and hopefully we can bring what you do to a large public."

Kenny Mayne of ESPN, who has been a hit as the Eclipse Awards master of ceremonies in recent years, joked that everyone in the audience was invited to the "Seabiscuit" premiere. "You can bring a guest, too," he added.

Cooper presented the Eclipse Award for trainer to Bobby Frankel, who won for the fourth time. Frankel brought three of his assistants to the stage - Humberto Ascanio, Ruben Loza, and Jose Cuevas - and cited each individually.

The connections of Farda Amiga, whose joyous celebration at the Kentucky Oaks was one of last year's highlights, were true to form Monday night. They tossed confetti into the air, waved a Brazilian flag, and chanted "Farda Amiga" when she was announced as champion 3-year-old filly.

* In addition to Azeri and Lady's Secret, the other fillies to win Horse of the Year were Twilight Tear (1944), Busher (1945), Moccasin (1965), and All Along (1983).