'Charlie's Angel' on Cloud Nine With Azeri, Astra

(Edited from track report)
The Charlie Whittingham School of Horse Training has brought to the sport a number of leading conditioners, including the well known and successful Joe Manzi, Dick Lundy, Rodney Rash and Hall of Famer Neil Drysdale.

The newest Whittingham disciple to step forward in what is primarily a man's world is Laura de Seroux, for many years a part of that coterie of female exercise riders known as "Charlie's Angels." From her training base at San Luis Rey Downs, about 30 miles from Del Mar, de Seroux finds joy each morning gazing at two of the finest female runners in the land – multiple Grade I winners Azeri, on the dirt, and Astra, on the turf.

Each has been designated by numerous observers as the best of her class, and both are being groomed for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Arlington Park October 26, Azeri in the $2-million Distaff and Astra in the $1-million Filly and Mare Turf.

The 4-year-old Azeri is expected to further enhance her divisional stature by running in Del Mar's $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at 1 1/16 miles Sunday. Astra, 6 years old, is being primed for Arlington Park's Beverly D. Stakes at 1 3/16 miles on the turf on August 17.

Joining this duo as a force in the 3-year-old filly turf division is de Seroux' s Del Mar Oaks-bound Dublino. She made a spectacular American debut by finishing first in Hollywood Park's initial $500,000 American Oaks, only to be disqualified and placed second for interfering in the stretch run with Megahertz, who was made the winner. It's very likely they will renew that duel in the seashore's Oaks on August 24.

De Seroux, who has 45 horses in training at quiet and relaxed San Luis Rey Downs, is an unabashed devotee of Whittingham's training style. Her feelings, and those of all his "Angels," go well beyond that.

"We idolized Charlie," she says. "We wanted to be with him. He took us to dinner all the time. He'd rather be with us than with his owners, and if his owners wanted to go to dinner, he'd say, 'Can I bring my girls along? They scrub up pretty well'."

Patience, organization and a strict adherence to routine stand out among the many attributes the Bald Eagle brought to training, and de Seroux, who galloped horses full or part time for Whittingham over a 16-year period, has adopted many of his techniques.

"Charlie didn't micromanage," de Seroux said. "He trusted us. He kept us on the same horses all the time, which is something I do, too. What he wanted, we wanted, too. For instance, I could trot a horse all the way to the half-mile pole before I started to gallop, just to get a clear path. He just trusted us to get it done the way he wanted it done.

"Routine was the most important thing to him. He believed horses shouldn't be surprised. That gets the blood pressure up. Anything to keep them idling as low as possible is what he wanted."

That daily routine would include a walk through the paddock and lining up and standing in the saddling stalls on the way back to the barn after the horses' exercised.

"We did the same thing day in and day out, and we became creatures of his routine," de Seroux said.

Something Whittingham was fanatic about, she said, was "... the best horses on the freshest track.

"We were the first ones on that track after the break. To the point where we'd have to get up on our horses early and go down there (the entrance to the track) and circle around and walk the barn area if the tractors were a little late. But, we were the first ones on the track -- and if we weren't, he would be furious."

Whittingham's ability to straddle the threshold of soundness has always amazed de Seroux. "He didn't train on medication," she said. "He stopped on a horse when it was needed. He stopped when a little problem popped up. If you do that you make a little problem go away. Ignore it and the little problem becomes a real problem."

Of course, de Seroux acknowledges, "Charlie had the luxury of not having to train a horse when something was not right. He could give them the time off they needed."

In looking at Azeri, de Seroux, who was born February 9, 1952 in Los Angeles, sees a very serene, sweet-natured animal that she calls "Honeybear." The trainer even classifies the filly's gams as "Betty Grable legs."

But one shouldn't be fooled by her disposition, de Seroux points out. Though she stands quietly on the track for a long time while horses working go by, she doesn't lack competitiveness. "If she was galloping while horses are working she likely would join the fray," de Seroux says.

In the beginning – the trainer got the filly last August from the Allen
Paulson Living Trust – Azeri impressed de Seroux and her main assistant, Alex Hassinger, as no more than "a nice Jade Hunter filly."

But, she said, "The first time she went to the track Alex and I looked at each other and said, 'that plain little thing's a pretty good mover.' Then, the first time she breezed – it was in company going a half-mile – she opened up 10 (lengths) on her work mate and went the half in 46. Then we knew what we had. Her talent unveiled itself very quickly."