Michael Paulson with Azeri.

Michael Paulson with Azeri.

Skip Dickstein

Putting the Legs in Legacy

For the past few years, Michael Paulson has been busy watching a reality show on TV in his Las Vegas home. His tastes don't necessarily run to "Survivor," "American Idol," or the other garbage that passes for entertainment in the 21st century. Paulson's viewing has been taken up by a horse--Azeri--whom he's watched race by race, frame by frame; remote in one hand, stopwatch in the other.

If a jockey moved a muscle aboard her, Paulson took notice. If she was bumped leaving the gate, or raced in a deep part of the racetrack, he jotted it down. If her tongue moved this way or that, if she ran her last eighth of a mile faster than the penultimate one, or if she galloped out particularly strong, he filed it away for future reference.

Obsession? Sure, but who can fault a love affair between an owner and an animal? So Paulson dotes on Azeri in the same way a society dame lavishes attention on her toy poodle. This is, after all, no run-of-the-mill horse. She is a Horse of the Year who for three seasons fired up excitement in fans coast to coast. She won more money than any filly or mare in the history of North American horse racing. And yet these accomplishments don't fully explain Paulson's feelings.

This is not just a story of a man and his horse, but of a man and his departed father. Michael Paulson knows Azeri is the last piece in the grand legacy of his father, Allen, one of the sport's most successful breeders and owners of champion stock. The father, who grew up on a dairy farm, passed his love of animals on to his sons. During the Great Depression, he fled the Midwest for California and achieved enormous success in two tough businesses--aviation and Thoroughbreds. His father's legacy always near to his heart, Michael has watched over Azeri with the gravity of his father's memory weighing on his every decision.

A bit more than a year after Allen Paulson's death, Azeri broke her maiden in November 2001. And then the damnedest thing happened--she just kept winning and winning and winning. Fourteen of her first 15 races ended up with Azeri getting her picture taken, including 11 in a row. Her 2002 campaign was a thing of beauty--four grade I victories leading up to the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Arlington Park.

Nobody who was there that day will forget her performance. She out-sprinted her opponents early, broke their hearts mid-race, and put five effortless lengths on her closest pursuer at the wire. Hers was by far the most impressive run of the frigid afternoon, and earned her Horse of the Year honors.

Paulson could have easily retired Azeri on her laurels right then. In fact, it seemed he'd be forced to. Allen Paulson's estate was being split up. Azeri, it appeared, was but an asset to be sold off along with the real estate and silverware. Except Michael Paulson wouldn't let it happen; wouldn't let the legacy fade so quickly. He traded a country club, a home, and who knows what else to keep control of the filly, a breathing, running monument to his father.

So back she came for 2003. Her first race that year, off a five-month rest, was another one for the ages. All heart and class, she willed her way past Take Charge Lady to win the Apple Blossom (gr. I) by a head. But that fall a shocking loss in her Breeders' Cup prep race set Azeri's world upside down. Trainer Laura de Seroux detected a tendon injury.

Again, the running part of the Paulson legacy seemed over. But Michael sent Azeri to two top Kentucky vet clinics, and she came back with a clean bill of health.

Paulson realized the abuse he was opening himself up to by bringing Azeri back to the races as a 6-year-old. If you retire your horse, it's always too soon. But if you don't retire it soon enough, well, every self-proclaimed expert in the world will bring down upon you hell and damnation.

Michael Paulson didn't bat an eye. He gave Azeri to high-profile trainer D. Wayne Lukas. If the results weren't as brilliant as the previous two years, they were good enough--a third Apple Blossom victory and two additional grade I wins.

Now, Azeri gets her retirement. And Michael Paulson has more tapes to analyze while the cheers and thrills fade to memory, and the Hall of Fame and racing history come calling. A legacy furthered. A sport enriched. A man who deserves thanks for doing the right thing every step of the way.

LENNY SHULMAN is features editor for The Blood-Horse

- For more information on the great Azeri, please check out the new book from Eclipse Press, Women of the Year