As expected, four runners will test Horse of the Year Azeri in Sunday's Grade II, $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on Del Mar's main track.Azeri will carry 127 pounds, including regular pilot Mike Smith, and will spot her foes from nine to 19 pounds. The 5-year-old chestnut mare will break from the rail. Beside her will be Got Koko, expected to be her major threat in the race. She'll carry 118 pounds, including Alex Solis.Angel Gift, carrying 112 pounds, including Jose Valdivia Jr., will be in the outside post, with Sister Girl Blues and Tropical Blossom to her inside. Sister Girl Blues will carry 109, including young John McKee, a finalist in 2002 for the Eclipse Award as apprentice of the year and making his first venture west, and Tropical Blossom is the lightweight at 108, including leading rider Julie Krone.The morning line, made by Jeff Tufts, has Azeri as the favorite at 1-9. Got Koko is listed at 4-1, Sister Girl Blues 15-1, Angel Gift 20-1 and Tropical Bloom 30-1. Tufts recalled he made Cigar the 1-9 favorite in his losing effort in the 1996 Pacific Classic. There will be no show wagering on the race.Azeri, who shipped to Del Mar Thursday from her normal training grounds at San Luis Rey Downs, went to the track this morning for a 1 1/8-mile gallop around the oval. Trainer Laura de Seroux, aboard her pony for the outing, judged the trip "perfect."In a conversation earlier in the morning de Seroux was questioned about how easy it might be to get overconfident when on a 10-victory win streak, as Azeri is, and her response was: "I'm not ever bullish. Not even with Azeri, am I bullish, because, once again, the presence of Got Koko makes it exciting enough. I thought even the Milady and the Vanity [handicaps at Hollywood Park] had some good drama this year."Sister Girl Blues obviously could still be an improving filly and she took it to Azeri a little longer than anybody has in a long time in the last race [the Vanity]. So I think we have enough excitement in our own division, and I'm quite happy to be there."As for the weights for the race, de Seroux said, "I'm delighted to remain at 127. There aren't enough weight-for-age races available for fillies and mares, so why keep penalizing her. When you look at the fact that Medaglia d'Oro and Mineshaft are carrying 122 and 123, it's almost absurd."
What kind of pressure comes for the trainer when saddling a prohibitive favorite, as Azeri figures to be? "I don't feel any undue pressure," de Seroux said, "as long as I get to remain focused and put her on the path that I think is the best one for her, and not get influenced by what else is going on or goals that would, in order to accomplish them, take us out of our focus in what we should do for her."