Azeri Faces Most Difficult Test in Met Mile

(from Belmont Park report)
Monday's Memorial Day $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) kicks off Belmont Stakes week with an outstanding cast, including 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, last year's 3-year-old champion Funny Cide and Pico Central and Strong Hope, the 1-2 finishers of Aqueduct's Carter Handicap (gr. I).

Popularly known as "the Met Mile," the event will be run for the 111th time Monday. It has been won by 12 Eclipse Award winners and seven Horse of the Year champions since 1954.

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year and Eclipse Award-winning older female of 2002 and 2003, meets males for the first time in an outstanding career. A winner of 15 of 18 lifetime starts and more than $3.4 million, she can become North America's leading female money earner of all time with a first or second-place finish in the Met. Currently, Azeri is second behind Spain, who like Azeri, was trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. Lukas has won this race three times.

Mayo on the Side upset Azeri in her last start, the seven-furlong Humana Distaff (gr. I) at Churchill Downs on May 1, Kentucky Derby Day. Lukas feels the 6-year-old mare, who was assigned 117 pounds, two less than Pico Central and Strong Hope, comes into Monday's race in top shape.

"I think that it's a good spot. It's worth $750,000 and I think it'll make a statement about her if she can win it," Lukas said. "She's won grade ones against her sex. We know we can do that. We're trying to step out of the box, as they say, and do something extraordinary."

Females have been sparingly raced in the Met Mile over the years, although Black Maria won it in 1927 and Gallorette won in 1946. Lukas saddled Horse of the Year Lady's Secret to a third-place finish behind Garthorn in 1986.

Last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness (both gr. I) winner Funny Cide is undefeated in four starts around one turn and is arguably the most interesting horse in this year's Met. Funny Cide is making his first start at Belmont in nearly a year after his Triple Crown bid was foiled by Empire Maker in the 2003 Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

"He's won all of his one-turn races, but three of them have been New York-bred races," trainer Barclay Tagg said. "I've heard people say he's not a grade one horse anymore, but he's run in eight of them and he's only been off the board in one of them -- and that was the Breeders' Cup Classic."

Though Funny Cide has not defeated the caliber of horses he will face on Memorial Day in quite some time, one would think the New York-bred gelding could be very salty in this spot, given his high cruising speed, determination and stamina.

"I'm always excited to see him run," Tagg said. "Right now, he's perfect. It's going to be an interesting race. Strong Hope and Pico Central looked like they are the best around at the distance. Maybe they'll go after each other. I'm not sure if a one-turn mile is best for (Funny Cide)."

Strong Hope rose quickly in the 3-year-old division last season, winning five consecutive races at four different distances while ascending in class with each start. Undoubtedly, the highlight of his winning streak was a neck victory over Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Empire Maker in Saratoga's Jim Dandy (gr. II).

But after running a distant third in the Travers (gr. I), a victim of a brutal and taxing speed duel with Peace Rules, Strong Hope was sent to the sidelines by trainer Todd Pletcher.

"We felt that after the Travers we had a horse that had come a long way in a short period of time and looking at the schedule, there weren't too many places to go," Pletcher said.

The son of Grand Slam enters the Met Mile on the heels of a second-place finish to Pico Central in the Carter on April 10. Over a track that favored speed, Strong Hope and Pico Central battled through a wicked pace of :21 3/5 and :43 2/5. Strong Hope took the lead by a head at the eighth pole,but the Brazilian Pico Central countered in the last 150 yards to win by 1 1/2 length. Strong Hope finished second, but was well clear of the third-place runner, Eye of the Tiger.

"I'm excited about a rematch," Pletcher said. "Pico Central is a tough horse that ran a great race in the Carter. We've got another race under our belt and this will be his third start of the season, so hopefully we'll be peaking on Monday. We need to peak, because it's going to be a tough race.

"I think we've got the right kind of horse. He's got tremendous amount of speed and great staying power as well. That's what a good miler is all about. It'd be a fun race to win. It's a big race for the breeders and he's been a very popular stallion prospect."

Jockey John Velazquez, who won the Met Mile in 1996 with Honour and Glory, pilots Strong Hope.

Pico Central's conditioner Paulo Lobo is a Brazilian native who saddled Farda Amiga to wins in the Kentucky Oaks and Saratoga's Alabama (both gr. I) two years ago. Farda Amiga's accomplishments earned her an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly of 2002.

A multiple Group 1 winner in Brazil, the speedy Pico Central enters the Met Mile seeking his third consecutive stakes victory. He is undefeated in three starts since arriving in the U.S. last autumn.

"He had a very shot career in Brazil, but I can tell you that he arrived in this country with great expectations," Lobo said. "His Carter win was amazing. He never had a chance to catch his breath and he has continued to train well."

Pico Central won a group I race at a mile on the turf in February of 2003 in Brazil. He is stretching out a furlong off the Carter, but Lobo does not expect the son of Spend a Buck to have a problem.

"I'm not worried at all about it," he said.

Longshot Eye of the Tiger ran well to finish third in the Carter at odds of better than 26-1. A deep closing son of American Chance, Eye of the Tiger should get a fast pace to run at in the Met and also gets another furlong to play with.

"The timing of the seven weeks between the Carter and the Met is perfect for him," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "Seven weeks is key for him because his races were close together earlier this year. He's a neat horse with a great attitude. It's the grade one Met Mile and it's going to be a tough, tough race, but we expect him to run well."

$750,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), 3 & up, 1 mile
1. Bowman's Band, Allen Jerkens, Jorge Chavez, 114
2. Eye of the Tiger, Kiaran McLaughlin, Edgar Prado, 114
3. Azeri, D. Wayne Lukas Pat Day, 117
4. Saarland, Shug McGaughey, Jerry Bailey, 113
5. Gygistar, Mark Hennig, Joe Bravo, 115
6. Strong Hope, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 119
7. Mobil, Michael Keogh, Todd Kabel, 115
8. Pico Central, Paulo Lobo, Alex Solis, 119
9. Funny Cide, Barclay Tagg, Jose Santos, 118