Astra, shown winning last year's Beverly Hills Handicap.

Astra, shown winning last year's Beverly Hills Handicap.

AP/ Benoit & Associates

Hollywood Park Race Report: Sharing a Dream

Published in the July 6 issue of The Blood-Horse
There is a certain bond shared between father and son, and with Allen Paulson and his youngest child, Michael, that connection centered around a love of horses. Oftentimes, Paulson found himself venturing to far-off lands, pursuing his latest business enterprise. To Michael, then just a lad of few years, the trips meant only one thing.

"When he'd travel, I knew he'd always come back and bring me this neat little horse from wherever he'd traveled," remembered Michael Paulson, smiling as he turned back the clock. "I've always had a love affair with horses. It was something special between my dad and myself."

It is a tie that has remained eternally strong, one that two years ago compelled Paulson to pass on his father's devotion to another generation. Sure, he kept a precious few that were most meaningful--the carved ivory figurines from China, the ceramic statuettes brought back from Europe. The rest of the collection, though, he donated to St. Jude's Children's Ranch, a foundation in Boulder City, Nev., which takes in abused children.

These days, however, the finest of those gifts are made of flesh and blood. As co-trustee and executor of his father's estate, Paulson has been living life in racing's fast lane of late, thanks in large part to the dynamic duo themselves, Azeri and Astra. On the heels of Azeri's tour de force a week earlier, Astra came back with a big one of her own on June 29 in the $250,000 Beverly Hills Handicap (gr. IT).

No, it wasn't the same four-length blowout of last year's Beverly Hills, nor was it that raging finish from the Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IT) just a month ago. In fact, Astra's narrow decision over German newcomer Peu a Peu was a tad too close for anyone's taste, especially those clutching tickets on her at 2-5. But in the end, when the divots had finally settled, it was all Astra again.

"That's just proof of her pure class," remarked Astra's jockey, Kent Desormeaux. "You know, things work out differently every race. Some horses are one-way, so you have to ride one-way, and that's the only way you can win. Well, she's proven that she can do it all. If they wanna go slow, she can lead 'em around there. If they go too fast, she'll catch 'em later. She made a half-mile sprint today. If nothing else, today was a confidence builder for me."

For Astra, it was a unique performance. Unlike the Gamely, where she needed every last inch of the Hollywood stretch to catch Starine, the homebred daughter of Theatrical took full command of the 10-furlong Beverly Hills with a move that was flat-out malicious. Drawing a bead on Snowflake, the lone target up ahead, Astra merely eased through the early furlongs of the Beverly Hills before commencing a blast that swallowed Snowflake whole turning for home. The velocity, as it was, propelled Astra to the front much sooner than usual, and thinking her job was complete, she began to idle in midstretch. This allowed Peu a Peu to shoot up the rail and throw a big scare into Desormeaux, who promptly tossed the reins a few times in an attempt to refocus Astra's attention.

It worked. Astra got the signal, gathered herself, and kept Peu a Peu at bay long enough win by a neck, giving her the Beverly Hills for the second straight year. It also provided her trainer, Laura de Seroux, with grade I win No. 4 at the Hollywood meet.

"Ineffable" was the immediate response when de Seroux was asked to describe her summer so far, which has been blissfully wrapped around the exploits of Astra and her stablemate Azeri. Every time she sends them out, it seems, some sort of history is made, and Astra's latest run was no exception. Carrying a career-high 124 pounds, the 6-year-old joined La Zanzara, Swingtime, and Flawlessly--all, interestingly enough, trained by de Seroux's mentor, Charlie Whittingham--as the only mares ever to take the Beverly Hills twice. Her final time, a sensational 1:58.56, easily expunged the former stakes mark set 16 years ago by another Whittingham standout, Paulson's champion Estrapade.

"She's somethin', huh?" said Desormeaux, fully convinced. "There's nothing that she can't do."

As Astra cooled out, de Seroux couldn't help but get caught up in the radiance herself. "Look at that," she observed, watching Astra insouciantly make her way around the tow ring. "Ears pricked. She looks sublime, doesn't she?"

By now, of course, de Seroux is very much in tune with Astra--she lovingly calls her "Mommybear"--but just a glimpse into the mare's focused eyes is enough to keep the doting trainer always on alert.

"She's a violin, for sure," de Seroux likes to say. "You have to play her finely."

Indeed, Astra is the definite yin to Azeri's yang. Azeri takes life as it comes; Astra's blood is on a constant boil. She likes to be left alone. She's hard on herself during training. There is a sweet side to her, de Seroux concedes, but she seldom lets her guard down. With Astra, tranquility and teamwork are essential.

Roberto Morales, her groom, simply grins at the big girl's fussiness and performs his role with tender skill. Exercise rider Martin Meza provides a "lovely light touch" in the mornings, according to de Seroux, while Brian Eide, himself a former jockey, is always aboard for the key prep work. The attention is constant--Astra never gets a day off--and the results are undeniable.

"This mare is absolutely fantastic to ride," said Desormeaux, quick to praise the entire team. "She used to drag me out of the saddle, and now she moves off of a rolling wrist. In other words, if I just roll my wrists forward, it's like shifting gears. She's just responding so attentively. She's just doing anything you could ask a horse to do."

There is, however, still music left to write. An August return to Chicago is likely, giving Astra a shot to expiate her dismal run in Arlington's Beverly D. Stakes (gr. IT) of a year ago. Beyond that, the obvious goal is the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) and the chance to join greats including Escena, Ajina, Eliza, Fraise, and Cigar. All were Paulson homebreds. All attained Breeders' Cup glory. For Michael Paulson, there wouldn't be anything greater.

"My dad made a huge effort to become a prominent horse owner and breeder, so it's continuing his legacy," he said. "If he were here right now, he'd be tickled pink how well we're doing with his horses. I know he'd be very proud."

At the Wire
Though trainer Bobby Frankel came up short with Peu a Peu, he was on the other end of the stick the following day when Inesperado came away with the $182,600 Cinema Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT) at 1 1/8 miles. Under Kent Desormeaux, the French-bred son of Zayyani made the most of his U.S. debut, running down Regiment late to win by a nose. The 3-year-old colt is owned by Charles Kenis...Kenis and Frankel can also look for a big summer from Super Quercus, who came back with a bang going 1 1/4 miles on grass that same afternoon. Now six, the son of Hero's Honor was last seen winning December's Hollywood Turf Cup Stakes (gr. IT)...Jury Box came out smokin' on June 30, dusting a field of maidens at 5 1/2 furlongs. The 2-year-old In Excess colt, clear by 11, is trained by D. Wayne Lukas. By Craig Harzmann

(Chart, Equibase)