Five fillies and mares have dared to challenge reigning Horse of the Year Azeri on Saturday when the brilliant 5-year-old mare returns to Hollywood Park for the $200,000-added Milady Breeder's Cup Hanidicap (gr. IT).Azeri will attempt to repeat her 2002 victory in the 1 1/16-mile Milady.She would appear to be well spotted to record her ninth consecutive triumph. "Scary good" is the way trainer Laura de Seroux describes Azeri's current condition. After chasing Azeri five times and viewing only the champion's hindquarters, multiple grade I winner Affluent will try again on Saturday. Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally is hoping that weight assignments will help tilt the playing field.Affluent received three pounds when she finished second, 3 1/2 lengths behind 122-pound highweight Azeri in last year's Milady. She will get an eight-pound edge in this year with 117 pounds to Azeri's 125.A victory would enable Azeri to become the first back-to-back winner of the Milady since distaff champion Paseana in 1993. Trained by McAnally, Paseana carried 125 pounds in both of her Milady wins.This will be Azeri's second start this year following her overwhelming acclimation as Horse of the Year after a five-length runaway in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) at Arlington Park in October. She opened her 2003 season with a hard-fought win in the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas on April 5.The only blemish - or "hiccup" as trainer de Seroux describes it - on Azeri's 12-race record is a second following a slow start in Santa Anita's La Canada Stakes in February of last year. She has won her subsequent eight races by an average of nearly three lengths. Summer Colony, who beat her by one length in the La Canada, wasn't close when running last in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Owned by the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust, Azeri has earned $2,527,740. She is three-for-three at Hollywood Park, and de Seroux has given consideration to taking on males sometime this year, perhaps in the June 14 Californian or July 13 Hollywood Gold Cup. But her primary focus, says de Seroux, is keeping Azeri's winning record in tact. She has mentioned Citation's record of 17 straight wins as a target.Affluent will be ridden for the first time by Gary Stevens, her fourth jockey since last winter's retirement of Eddie Delahoussaye. The 5-year-old chestnut mare, owned by Janis Whitham, most recently won the Santa Monica Handicap (gr. I) at Santa Anita on January 25. She has earned $1,463,415 from an 8-5-3 record in 21 starts.Beau Greely trains both Enjoy and Keys to the Heart, a pair of 4-year-old fillies. The only graded stakes victory between them is Keys to the Heart's upset victory at 17-1 odds in Hollywood Park's Hawthorne Handicap (gr. III) on April 25. Australian-bred Damaschino won a group III event in her homeland, but has raced once in the United States and all of her 25 starts have been on turf. Tropical Blossom, a 5-year-old mare, has only started six times with her two wins coming in a maiden and an allowance race.$200,000-added Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. I), fillies & mares 3 & up, 1 1/16 mile
PP. Horse, Jockey, Wgt.
1. Enjoy, Victor Espinoza, 113
2. Tropical Blossom, Matt Garcia, 111
3. Damaschino, Corey Nakatani, 114
4. Azeri, Mike Smith, 125
5. Affluent, Gary Stevens, 117
6. Keys To The Heart, Jose Valdivia Jr., 115