Del Mar Race Report: High Five

Del Mar Race Report: High Five
Photo: Benoit Photos
Azeri won her fifth straight grade I in the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap.
Published in the Aug. 17 issue of The Blood-Horse
The transformation is instant and observable. The dark eyes, usually so gentle, suddenly grow wide and anxious. Her smooth caramel coat is rippled with veins, tiny trails of aggression. That neck, so muscled and sleek, becomes arched. Those slender legs soon begin an impatient prance. Not exactly the image of a filly known as "Honeybear," a kind, peaceful sort who spends much of her free time loafing in the sun.

"She's lovable," maintained assistant trainer Jeff Ford. "I mean, if you ever want to have a pony for your kids, you want it to act like her."

Indeed, her personality is darling. She's as sweet as a peppermint. But make no mistake--when Azeri comes to play, look out. Her innocence is replaced with intensity. Picture running out of the stadium tunnel just moments before kickoff at the Super Bowl. You get the idea.

Azeri was at it again on Aug. 11, adding the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap (gr. II) to her summertime recreation. As usual, she barely broke a sweat. Her streak has now hit five. Some call her invincible. Others can only look on in awe. To trainer Laura de Seroux, however, Azeri's power is sky-high, and the reason is obvious.

"That's what happens when horses start to dominate," she explained. "It works in their favor more and more. The way she's dominated her races makes her just appear to have more and more of an aura about her and an air of confidence."

Competitive to the core, Azeri was eager the moment the doors flew open in the Hirsch. Both Irguns Angel and Queen of Wilshire beat her to the front, however, and the daughter of Jade Hunter was a bit resistant when jockey Mike Smith tried to coax her into chase mode. Smith was by no means concerned, figuring he'd merely switch Azeri off and work his way clear later on.

Moving into the first turn, though, Irguns Angel briefly drifted right, leaving a wide lane along the rail. The opportunity was golden, and Smith instantly dropped Azeri's head. She shot through in a heartbeat and took charge.

The rest of the way, Smith simply just held on. Azeri shed her pursuers for good turning for home, galloping clear with apologetic ease. By now, Smith was sitting firm against the bit, keeping Azeri straight and steady, but even his curiosity began to wander. He took one peek to his right a furlong out, making sure the coast was clear, then spent the final few strides eyeing the infield big-screen. The view was breathtaking. Owned by the Allen Paulson Living Trust, Azeri won by two lengths, covering the 8 1/2 furlongs in a nonchalant 1:42.66.

"All the way around there you're just amazed how easy she does things," admitted Smith, by now plumb out of superlatives. "She fires no matter what."

Part of Azeri's phenomenal run can be attributed to a well-spaced schedule. The Hirsch fell seven weeks after her romp in the Vanity Handicap (gr. I), the same interval she saw between triumphs in the Apple Blossom (gr. I) and Milady (gr. I) Handicaps.

"That's just the way it came up, and I'm really glad because I consider those sort of mini-breaks," explained de Seroux. "She's been going since November, and it's hard to keep a horse peaking all year long. I think it's worked extremely well to her advantage, and it has been part of the reason that she's gotten bigger and stronger."

The dividends are indisputable. Azeri has estivated in control, leaving the local competition in ruins. Where the 4-year-old sensation turns up next, however, will likely depend on weight and simple timing. Azeri carried 126 pounds in the Hirsch, a career high and a dozen more than runner-up Angel Gift. With a victory in the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) and an Eclipse Award her admitted goals, de Seroux plans to take the path of least resistance.

"I'd have to be careful what I do next," she said, ready to prep Azeri on mere works if need be. "I don't want to make her vulnerable by doing the wrong thing. That would be unfair to her. I'd rather meet her strongest opposition at Arlington Park where it's a level playing field."

Meanwhile, Azeri will continue to while away the days at home, which for her and the rest of the de Seroux bunch is serene San Luis Rey Downs in northern San Diego County. Her relaxed attitude is nothing new, according to Ford, who knew the young filly way back when. In fact, Ford was the first one on Azeri's back when she began to get serious as a yearling, and his devotion has never flinched. There's no doubt she's got it all.

"She's a monster," said Ford. "I'm sure she knows it, but she's cool with it."

Center of Attention
Buffythecenterfold is not quite in the same league as Azeri yet, but she's certainly moving in the right direction. The 2-year-old daughter of Capote made it three straight of her own on Aug. 10 in the $150,000 Sorrento Stakes (gr. II), further validating the lofty praise of her trainer, Mel Stute.

"Buffy, I believe, is the best filly I've ever trained," Stute said. "I think she's better than Very Subtle, and I think she's better than Brave Raj, at this time in her life. You can see how big she is, and she just does everything so easy."

Strong stuff, considering Very Subtle once beat the boys in the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) and Brave Raj herself was a champion. Yet Stute has been high on the leggy filly from the moment he first cast eyes on her, and so far, Buffythecenterfold hasn't done anything to quell the enthusiasm.

The Sorrento, of course, was just one step along Brave Raj's tour de force back in 1986. Buffy seems to be following the same curve. Ridden by Matt Garcia, she stayed strong long enough to beat Tricks Her by three-quarters of a length. Named for Buffy Tyler, Playboy's Miss November 2000, Buffythecenterfold is now co-owned by Allen Brian and Frank Stronach. The Aug. 31 Del Mar Debutante (gr. I) is up next.

At the Wire
Buffythecenterfold's biggest challenge in the Del Mar Debutante (gr. I) may come from Santa Catarina, who looked impressive breaking her maiden by eight lengths the day after the Sorrento. Bob Baffert trains the Unbridled filly for owners Bob and Beverly Lewis... Congratulations to jockey Garrett Gomez, who notched his 2,000th career victory on Aug. 10. The winning ride came aboard newcomer Adalgisa. A recent arrival from France, the daughter of Spinning World made the most of her local debut, easily defeating maidens going 8 1/2 furlongs on grass. Owned by a partnership, the 3-year-old filly comes from the Julio Canani barn and may turn up in the Aug. 24 Del Mar Oaks (gr. IT)... Laffit Pincay Jr. eased by No. 9,400 on Aug. 7.. .Loath to subject Kona Gold to a cramped schedule and the complications of shipping, trainer Bruce Headley is likely to bring the 8-year-old gelding to the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) off works alone. "I have no choice. I'm in between a rock and a hard place," said Headley, noting the top local prep, the Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), falls just three weeks out. "I don't want to have a real hard race before the Breeders' Cup."

(Chart, Equibase)

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