When Paulson accepted the Horse of the Year trophy, it would have been perfectly understandable for him to discuss the breeding plans for the daughter of Jade Hunter who had just turned five years old. Instead, he was talking about a defense of the Horse of the Year title. Azeri was not quite up to that challenge, though she still won four of her five starts. She came back after a brief freshening to win the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park for the second straight year, getting up by a desperate head after looking hopelessly beaten in the stretch by Take Charge Lady. She won three more stakes that summer, then simply didn't look like her old self when beaten by Got Koko in the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II), a race that was to be her final prep before the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. Azeri carried 128 pounds that day, the highest impost of her career. Trainer de Seroux determined that all was not right with Azeri and took her out of consideration for the Breeders' Cup. It looked as though the champion's racing career was over. Paulson got a second and third opinion on Azeri's physical well-being and opted to keep her in training yet another year, switching her to the barn of D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Famer who had done so well with other mares like Lady's Secret, Serena's Song, and Spain. Lukas pointed Azeri for a third consecutive Apple Blossom, and the mare responded with an easy win. But it's been downhill ever since: second in the Humana Distaff Handicap (gr. I), eighth in her first start against males in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), and fourth and last in the Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I). Paulson has gotten heat from some corners for keeping Azeri in training. He should be getting our thanks.
Currently playing across America's racing landscape are two stories that reflect the difficult decision owners of championship-level racehorses face concerning when to have their stars "call it a career." On one stage is Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner Smarty Jones and his supporting cast of owners Roy and Pat Chapman and trainer John Servis. The other stage is occupied by Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year who was switched from trainer Laura de Seroux to D. Wayne Lukas by owner Michael Paulson late last year. Smarty Jones has enriched the lives of the Chapmans, and not in purely economic terms. The thrills he has provided them with cannot be measured in dollars and cents. The unbridled joy the Chapmans experienced was felt and shared by many in the racing world. But Smarty Jones is enriching them in other ways, too, and it's this financial payoff that likely will have a bearing on when his racing days end. Roy Chapman is a businessman, and he would be foolish not to maximize the value of Smarty Jones. That means coming to terms with a stallion farm when competition for the horse is at a peak--now. In that case, it will be tough for Chapman to have it both ways: getting top dollar in recognition of what Smarty Jones has done and risking the horse's long-term value by having complete control on the remainder of his racing career. Racing fans want to see Smarty Jones compete in 2005 as a 4-year-old, and the Chapmans must feel that way, too. But it's not likely to happen if they strike a deal of upwards of $50 million to stand him at stud. It's tough being both a sportsman and businessman. Look for Chapman's business side to win out. I'm not sure what motivates Paulson, but it would be difficult to find many people who would have kept Azeri in training in 2003. Her Horse of the Year campaign was punctuated with a powerful performance in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) at Arlington. Remember, too, the wise guys and speed boys said Azeri was "overrated" going into that race.