Trainer D. Wayne Lukas brought former champion Azeri all the way back Saturday to capture the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) in smart front-running fashion over a strong field at Oaklawn Park.
The 6-year-old Jade Hunter
mare was making her first start for Lukas, who took over conditioning duties after Azeri was taken out of training by Laura de Seroux due to a sore tendon following a third-place finish (she was moved to second via disqualification) in the Lady Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) Sept. 28.
That loss snapped an 11-race winning streak. But Lukas said he know Azeri was ready to run Saturday.
``There's a whole different standard with the great ones,'' Lukas said.
Carrying high weight of 123 pounds, she zipped to the front for regular jockey Mike Smith coming out of the gate from her inside rail post and stayed in front while under pressure from Star Parade. She covered the 1 1/16-mile test in an outstanding time of 1:41 1/5 to win by 1 1/2 lengths over 3-2 favorite Wild Spirit.
``I thought going into the first turn that we were in good shape,'' said Smith, who has ridden every race with Azeri. ``The only thing I didn't know was how fit she was. When we straightened in the stretch she was just pricking her ears and I knew she had plenty left.''
Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, set fractions of :23, :46 3/5 and 1:10 4/5, getting pressed sternly on the second turn by Star Parade, but edging away at the top of the lane.
It was Azeri's 15th win in 17 career starts and her third straight in the Apple Blossom.
Wild Spirit, ridden by Jerrry Bailey, made her move on the inside to get second, surviving a stewards' inquiry into a bumping incident with third-place finisher Star Parade as she angled out abruptly coming out of the final turn. Star Parade, John McKee aboard, was third, another 1 3/4 lengths behind but 7 1/4 lengths clear of Island Fashion, who was the second choice in the field.
``As we got closer to it and started looking at this horses, we thought there might be four or five of them who might (give us a run),'' Lukas said. ``Island Fashion just ran a hell of a race at the (Santa Anita) Handicap. I think we took her out of her game today. I think we took them all out of their game.''
She earned $300,000 for owner Michael Paulson (representing Allen E. Paulson Living Trust), pushing her career total to $3,344,820.
Keys to the Heart and Golden Sonata completed the order of finish.
Azeri paid $6, $3.20 and $2.20 as the 2-1 second choice. The Chilean-bred Wild Spirit returned $2.80 and $2.20. Argentine Star Parade showed for $2.60.
While finishing second, Wild Spirit was never close enough to challenge Azeri.
``What can I say? We got beat by a champion,'' said Wild Spirit's trainer Bobby Frankel. ``It was a real good race. The two will meet again, probably in New York.''
Wild Spirit surpassed $1 million in earnings with the $100,000 that goes to second.