The champion mare Azeri can become the all-time top-earning mare in North American racing with a victory in the $250,000 Go for Wand Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course Sunday. But to do so, she'll have to overcome Sightseek, who trounced her in their most recent start in the Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park June 19.
That was not the only disappointing race for Michael Paulson's Azeri since she transferred to D. Wayne Lukas' barn for the 2004 season. In her other race at Belmont, the 2002 Horse of the Year was no match against males in the Metropolitan Mile Handicap (gr. I) on Memorial Day. She was eighth in the field of nine.
"I think two things happened to her at Belmont," Lukas said, "First, she bled a little bit in the Phipps. I don't know if she did that before. But I really think she didn't care for the Belmont racetrack."
Prior to those two races, the 6-year-old Azeri was in championship style winning the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I). It was the second consecutive time she won the grade I event at Oaklawn Park.
Azeri is just $120,722 short of becoming the top-earning mare in North Americ. She currently has $3,419,820. She would need a victory in the 1 1/8-mile Go For Wand to surpass Spain ($3,540,542), the leading female money-winner who was also trained by Lukas.
Six weeks after their first match at Belmont, Azeri and the 5-year-old Sightseek, who won last year's Go for Wand by 11 1/2 lengths, have been training sensationally in different parts of the country. Azeri has been putting in the fastest times in each of her four workouts at Churchill Downs. Sightseek also has bullets across her Belmont work line.
"I feel comfortable where we are at with her," Lukas said about Azeri. "There's a lot of things to like. I believe she's more suited for two turns, she's been working well and she has been superb since coming to Saratoga."
The only thing that has changed coming into the Go For Wand is a five-pound weight switch. Sightseek, starting from post 5 with Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, will carry two more pounds at 122 while Azeri, starting from post 6 with Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, gets a three-pound break at 120.
A field of six is entered in the 2004 Go for Wand.
Sightseek, trained by Bobby Frankel, won the Ogden Phipps for the second straight year by 3 1/4 lengths while wrapped up. Azeri finished last in the quartet, beaten 11 ¾ lengths.
"You never know what's going to happen in a race," Frankel said. "That was proven in the Phipps Handicap. I don't think Azeri ran her race. Because of that, I don't think many people are respecting her."
Before she won the Phipps Handicap, Juddmonte Farms' Sightseek had been facing her struggles, too. After winning four consecutive grade I races last year, she was never a factor as she finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) at Santa Anita. Three months later, Sightseek put in another poor race in the Santa Monica Handicap (gr. I) at the same track.
Sightseek returned to her 4-year-old form with an easy victory in the Rampart Handicap (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park. But she followed through with a flop in the slop at Churchill Downs in the Louisville Breeders' Cup (gr. II).
"I don't think she cared for the track that day," Frankel said. "She did come back to win the Phipps. I still think Sightseek is the same horse that everyone saw last year."
Storm Flag Flying, owned by Ogden Mills Phipps and trained by Shug McGaughey, has not raced at Saratoga since her debut on Aug. 18, 2002. Off that race, the regally-bred daughter of Storm Cat
-My Flag, by 1989 Travers winner Easy Goer went undefeated in her next three starts -- all grade 1 races with the Matron, Frizette and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies -- which earned her the Eclipse award for best 2-year-old filly.
Following a late-charging victory in the Shuvee Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont in May, she finished second to Sightseek while making up ground at the end.
"Her last four races have been good ones," said McGaughey, who will be inducted in the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame on Aug. 9. "She has done everything that we have asked her to do this year. I think she's getting back to where she was as a juvenile. Whether she is at that point, I don't know. But I'm really looking forward running her back here again."
Storm Flag Flying will start from post position 1 while carrying John Velazquez and 117 pounds.
Mayo On the Side, seeks her third victory this year after defeating Azeri in the Humana Distaff Handicap (gr. I) on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Owned by Lothenbach Stables and trained by Carl Nafzger, the 5-year-old mare by French Deputy was second in the HPBA Handicap at Ellis Park and fourth in the Chicago Breeders' Cup Handicap at Arlington Park in her last two starts.$250,000 Go for Wand Handicap (gr. I, race 9, 2:20 p.m. ET), fillies & mares 3 & up, 1 1/8 mile
PP. HORSE, TRAINER, JOCKEY, WEIGHT
1. Storm Flag Flying, Claude McGaughey III, John Velazquez, 117
2. Mayo On the Side, Carl Nafzger, Robby Albarado, 115
3. Board Elligible, James Ferraro, Javier Castellano, 112
4. La Reason, Tommy Kirby, Edgar Prado, 113
5. Sightseek, Robert Frankel, Jerry Bailey, 122
6. Azeri, D. Wayne Lukas, Pat Day, 120