Jockey Mike Smith got a great big 38th birthday present from Azeri, the horse he says put him in the Racing Hall of Fame, Sunday in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap (gr. II) for fillies and mares at Del Mar.
Azeri may have posted bigger wins, such as in last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), which earned her Horse of the Year honors, but she never won any easier. Spotting her four rivals from nine to 18 pounds, Azeri dictated the pace while racing wide, galloping away in the stretch to post an impressive 3 1/4-length victory, her 11th graded stakes triumph in a row.
The 5-year-old Jade Hunter mare won the Hirsch for second year in a row while stopping the clock in the 1 1/16-mile feature in 1:46.12 on a fast track.
Stalker Got Koko was a distant second, a head in front of the Tropical Blossom. Sister Girl Blues and Angel Gift were well beaten in fourth and fifth.
Bred and owned by the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust and trained by Laura de Seroux, Azeri, under 127 pounds, won for the 14th time in 15 career starts.
In winning his third straight race on Sunday's Del Mar card, Smith sat absolutely still on the champion's back as she cantered away in the stretch. Afterward, he was in tears as he tried to describe his feelings.
"She's amazing," Smith said. "She was on it today just like she was for the Breeders' Cup. She was so calm and collected coming up to it and all business doing it. As soon as she got a whiff of another horse (near them), she jumped back into the bridle. She was cruising. I didn't begin to hit all her gears. I may never get to the bottom of her. She's just a treat. I took a look back at the eighth pole and I knew I was OK. Today, she just ran out of my vocabulary. I don't have words for her."
The victory came on the seventh anniversary of Dare and Go's upset win over the Allen Paulson-owned Cigar in the 1996 Pacific Classic (gr. I), ending the champion's record-tying 16-race winning streak.
Azeri bobbled a bit away from the gate from her inside post but sped to the lead. After clearing her rivals, Smith moved her off the rail a couple of paths as her likely pace challenger Sister Girl Blues was forced wide into the first turn. The chestnut clicked off moderate fractions of :23 1/5 for the opening quarter mile and :47 for the half as Sister Girl Blues fell back on the backstretch and Got Koko began to move up on the inside.
Got Koko, who had put together a three-race graded stakes winning streak at the end of last year and early in 2003, was making her first start since finishing fourth in the Santa Margarita at Santa Anita in March. Ridden by Alex Solis, who was aboard Dare and Go in 1996, the filly was able to get within less than a length of Azeri on the final turn, but could not sustain her challenge on the inside. As they hit the stretch, Got Koko attempted to switch off the rail and appeared to jostle briefly with Tropical Blossom and Julie Krone. Neither horse mounted a challenge as Azeri picked up the pace in the stretch and drew away in hand.
"There were some butterflies there," Michael Paulson, Allen Paulson's son and trust administrator, admitted afterward as he watched Solis and Got Koko move up on Azeri.
"By the time we reached the half-mile pole, I knew the damage was already done," Solis said. "(Azeri) ran so easy that first part, I knew we weren't going to be able to deal with her. I tried to get up in there and lean on her, but she wasn't having it. She's too tough. But we tried and we'll have to try her again."
Krone agreed. "From the half-mile (pole) to the three-eighths (pole), I thought I was gaining on her. My mare was trying hard. But then Mike (Smith) 'speed popped' her (Azeri) and she was gone. She runs those turns so well and that just makes her tougher yet. My mare ran great. But we got beat."
De Seroux said she was confident going into the race.
"They came at her at about the half-mile pole and once she shook them off, I knew that they probably could come after her again," de Seroux said. "Only the best horses can do that. So that pretty much tells the story. She was comfortable and having some fun, really.
"It's very emotional at this point, more than anything else. I was 100 percent confident that she was again at her best today – the way she schooled, the way she was coming up to the race. We have a very good handle on how to let her down and how to bring her back up to each race. She's an easy read, and she speaks very clearly to us, and I was confident she would do exactly what she did today. It's getting very emotional because of the profundity of how special she is, is increasing with each race.
"It was a good race for her because she really didn't have to look anybody in the eye. Nobody got there."
Azeri picked up $180,000 for the victory, improving her career earnings to $2,984,820. There are seven female runners ahead of her on the all-time earnings list, topped by Spain at $3,507,542.
Sent postward the overwhelming 1-5 favorite of the crowd of 20,613, Azeri's placing created a heavy minus pool even though there was no show wagering. Because of heavy action on her, there was a Del Mar record minus place pool of $96,380.30. The place pool totaled $682,857.60, of which $608,417.20 was bet on the winner.
She paid $2.60 and $2.10. Got Koko returned $2.10. The $2 exacta was worth $5.40.