Making her first start since being crowned Horse of the Year for 2002, Azeri wore down pacesetter Take Charge Lady for a game head victory in Saturday's grade I, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
``She was just so excited,'' said Smith, who has ridden Azeri to 11 wins in 12 starts. ``She just kept moving.''
Sent off as the 2-5 favorite and 123-pound highweight in the seven-horse field, Azeri broke slowly and then stalked the moderate pace set by Take Charge Lady throughout the 1 1/16-mile race. With Shane Sellers aboard, Take Charge Lady was quick out of the gate, setting fractions of 24.33, 48.70, 1:12.38, and 1:36.69 for a mile. Azeri made her move on the outside as the field rounded the second turn into the stretch and gradually made up ground until she caught Take Charge Lady in the final strides.
``I thought she had enough left to hold off the favorite,'' Sellers said.
Trained by Laura De Seroux for the Allen Paulson Living Trust, Azeri paid $2.80, $2.20, and $2.20. Take Charge Lady paid $2.80 and $2.20, while Mandy's Gold was another 3 1/4 lengths back in third, paying $2.20. Final time for 1 1/16 miles was 1:43.
The victory was the eighth in a row for Azeri, who won the Apple Blossom for the second consecutive year. The 5-year-old daughter of Jade Hunter -- Zodiac Miss (by Ahonoora) has now won 11 of 12 career starts, with the only blemish a second-place effort in the 2002 grade II La Canada Stakes.
Legal problems related to the trust of late owner Allen Paulson kept Azeri off the track since her win at the Breeders' Cup Distaff last October. De Seroux had just four workouts to prepare Azeri for her debut as a 5-year-old.
``As I said before champions overcome obstacles,'' de Seroux said. ``That's what she did today. She didn't break all that sharp. For a comeback race ... she didn't have to run hard all the way, she only had to run hard the last quarter-mile so I'm delighted with it.''
``When we hit the top of the stretch Shane's horse scooted away from them and I thought 'Uh-oh,''' Smith said. ``I tapped her real hard one time about the eighth pole and I got the reaction I needed. About three or four strides from the wire I was confident she was going to catch her.''
Azeri is the first horse to defend her Apple Blossom title since Paseana in 1992-93. Azeri's victory in last year's Apple Blossom was the first race outside of California for the daughter of Jade Hunter.