Azeri's victory over Sightseek in the $245,000 Go for Wand Handicap (gr. I) Sunday at Saratoga Race Course not only erased many doubts about her recent form, it also made her the richest mare of all time.
Ridden by Pat Day, Azeri, who broke on top and established an easy pace in the 1 1/8-mile test, hooked up with Sightseek in upper stretch. After Bailey and Sightseek got a nose in front on the outside, Azeri battled back to win going away by 1 3/4 lengths. Storm Flag Flying, with John Velazquez aboard, was another two lengths behind in third. The final time was a Go for Wand stakes-record 1:47 4/5 and four ticks off the track mark. (The race was changed from the one-mile Maskette to nine furlongs in 1994.) Only five competed after Board Elligible was scratched on the track.
The victory moved Azeri, the 2002 Eclipse winner as Horse of the Year, right back to the head of her class, snapping a three-race losing streak she had experienced for trainer D. Wayne Lukas this year. Most regarded Sightseek as the best of her division after the Juddmonte runner demolished Azeri by nearly 12 lengths in the Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park in June.
"It was a gallant effort by a gallant mare," Day said. "Today, she was in the game, in the race and repulsed a strong bid from Sightseek. She finished with authority. She galloped out strong. It was a great job by Mr. Lukas, and I'm certainly happy to be part of the team."
The win pushed Azeri, owned by Allen Paulson Living Trust, slightly ahead of Spain on the all-time list for purse earnings among North American females. The $150,000 winner's share Sunday brought her earnings to $3,569,820, which is $29,278 moe than the retired Spain, who was also trained by Lukas. Serena's Song, third on the list at $3,283,388, is another Lukas protege.
Azeri, breaking from the outside, appreciated the extra distance of the Go for Wand and also the two turns. Lukas said he never lost confidence in her.
"I felt that once we got lined out a little bit, we would be able to identify some of the problems," Lukas said. "It was not a small thing that she bled in her last race. The other thing is that Michael (Paulson) and I both believe that two turns is a better fit for her. That's where they're going to be from now on, and we're happy about that."
She sprinted to get the lead coming away from the far outside post position. But Day slowed things down quickly and may have won the race with an opening quarter of :24 1/5. Sightseek established herself within striking distance of Azeri while both raced well off the rail through the first turn and down the backstretch. Azeri continued to lead through splits of :47 3/5 and 1:10 4/5.
Coming off the far turn, Bailey asked Sightseek for a little more and she responded, soon heading Azeri after a mile in 1:35. But instead of wilting under the pressure, Azeri had a powerful response in the final furlong.
Lukas said it was tremendous to see the two mares duel.
"There was no bumping, no traffic," Lukas said. "It was just a wonderful race. At the top of the stretch, you could just say, `Okay, here we go.' It was very gratifying to see her kick it on like that. I always feel comfortable if Pat (Day) is on a good horse and he's got a half-length to a neck. You feel really good about it."
Azeri, carrying 120 pounds, was weighted two pounds less than Sightseek and enjoyed a five-pound switch in the weights from the Phipps, which didn't make Juddmonte trainer Bobby Frankel happy.
"I was upset at the beginning of the race," he said. "I was giving (Azeri) two pounds that I shouldn't have been giving her. I just hope next time I get five pounds."
Storm Flag Flying stalked the first two while racing on the inside throughout. She fell back a bit on the turn and came on again in the stretch to finish well.
"Turning for home, I thought we had a shot at Azeri and Sightseek," said trainer Shug McGaughey. "I'm satisfied with her effort. I still think she is moving ahead. I would rather had seen her move forth much farther. Still, she was only beaten a couple of lengths by the two best mares in the country. I just don't think we had the best of it."
For Azeri, who last won on April 3 in Oaklawn Park's Apple Blossom (gr. I), the victory ended the longest losing streak of her career, which included her only out-of-the-money finishes. The 6-year-old mare by Jade Hunter
-Zodiac Miss (Ahonoora) won for the 16th time in 21 starts. She also has three seconds. She paid $7.90, $3.10 and $2.10 as the second choice. Sightseek, the 3-5 favorite, returned $2.40 and $2.10, completing a $15 exacta. Storm Flag Flying was $2.10 to show. Mayo On the Side was a distant fourth. La Reason trailed.(Chart, Equibase)