Welcome Back! Azeri to Face Six in Apple Blossom

Horse of the Year Azeri will make her 5-year-old debut against six rivals in the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

Azeri will carry highweight of 123 pounds in her first start since capping her championship season with a five-length victory in the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) at Arlington Park.

Trainer Laura de Seroux thinks Azeri, who won last year's Appple Blossom, might be even better this year than in 2002 when she won eight of nine starts.

``I mean she's just physically stronger, if it's possible,'' de Seroux told the Associated Press ``She's reaching the peak of her maturity.''

That victory helped her become just the third filly -- and first since 1986 -- to win Horse of the Year honors.

Legal problems related to the trust of late owner Allen Paulson kept de Seroux from training Azeri for three months. The time off helped both the trainer and the horse, who has won 10 of 11 career starts and earned $2,227,740.

``You know we've had an enforced layoff, but it probably worked out to our benefit,'' de Seroux said.

``She didn't gain any weight and she didn't get sore, like a lot of horses do when they've been off. Just like if you haven't gone to the gym for a while and then you start back, you're going to be a little sore. I mean she's just a phenomenal athlete.''

Among other entrants in Saturday's 1 1/16th-mile race for fillies and mares 4 and older is Affluent, a runner-up to Azeri every time they've raced, including last year's Apple Blossom.

Affluent, a multiple stakes winner, won the seven-furlong Santa Monica Handicap on Jan. 25, but she missed the Santa Margarita Invitational on March 9 because of a fever.

Others entered include multiple Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady; and Bien Nicole, who won the Oaklawn Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. III) in her last start.

1. Took Out, 110, Abel Castellano Jr.
2. Affluent, 117, Alex O. Solis
3. Rhiana, 110, Carlos H. Marquez, Jr.
4. Bien Nicole, 115, Donald R. Pettinger
5. Take Charge Lady, 118, Shane J. Sellers
6. Azeri, 123, Mike E. Smith
7. Mandy's Gold, 116, Rene R. Douglas