Azeri would become only second two-time winner with a victory in the Distaff.

Azeri would become only second two-time winner with a victory in the Distaff.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Nextel Distaff Preview: Heavy Lies the Crown

Azeri is already among elite company: Horse of the Year in 2002, back-to-back champion older mare in 2002 and 2003, and all-time leading North American female earner. With a victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff - Presented by Nextel (gr. I), she would join the brilliant Bayakoa as the only two-time Distaff winners in history.

But as Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown..."

Will Michael Paulson, who manages the career of Azeri through the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust of his late father, and trainer D. Wayne Lukas take a leap of faith and try the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) against the boys, or will she stay among her own kind in the Distaff? The Distaff is her connections' first preference, but no one knows for sure. Against fillies and mares, Azeri will be a heavy favorite to kick off the World Thoroughbred Championships with a victory.

The Distaff has been a favored stomping ground for Lukas, who has won this race four times and run second on eight occasions. It's familiar territory for jockey Pat Day as well, who has three Distaff wins on his résumé.

If they opt for a more sensible spot in the Distaff, they won't have to worry about the Bobby Frankel-trained Sightseek. The easy winner of the Beldame Stakes (gr. I) Oct. 9 has already been retired to broodmare duty at Juddmonte Farms, her seven grade I wins a testament to her class. Only a poor showing in last year's race kept her from wrestling the older female crown from Azeri in 2003.

Second to Sightseek in the nine-furlong Beldame was Society Selection, who was never comfortable last year at Santa Anita, finishing 10th in the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). Irving and Marjorie Cowan's homebred 3-year-old daughter of Coronado's Quest does have two grade I wins this year under her belt, but she's yet to win outside New York.

The strongest challenge from the 3-year-old set figures to come in the form of Ashado, the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner who prepped for the Distaff against fellow 3-year-olds with a confidence-building 23/4-length win in the Cotillion Handicap (gr. II) at Philadelphia Park Oct. 2. Owned by Jack and Laurie Wolf's Starlight Stables, Paul Saylor, and Johns Martin, Ashado will attempt to buck a bit of history in the Distaff. Six other sophomores have won the race, but only one, Dance Smartly, did so without the benefit of a race against older horses. An asterisk could be placed next to her name, however, as all four of her starts before the 1991 Distaff came against colts, in the Canadian Triple Crown series and the Molson Export Million Stakes (gr. II).

Another 3-year-old filly who has yet to take on the older set is Stellar Jayne, a two-time grade I-winning daughter of Wild Rush trained by Lukas. Both of her major scores, in the Mother Goose and Gazelle, came at the Distaff distance of 11/8 miles, but both were run around one turn at Belmont Park.

Ogden Mills Phipps, et al's Storm Flag Flying will also be going for her second Breeders' Cup win. Her first came at Arlington in 2002, just after Azeri's Distaff win, in the Long John Silver's Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). The two met three times this year, with each knocking down a win.

The West Coast contingent is headed by Everest Stables' Island Fashion, and J. Paul Reddam's Elloluv. Neither one has a victory at nine furlongs.

Adding to the intrigue here is the fact none of the pre-entrants have even made a start over the host site's surface.

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