Hollywood Park Race Report: Double A

Published in the June 1 issue of The Blood-Horse.
The filly they call "Honeybear" stood peacefully in stall 15, her chestnut muzzle buried in a tub of sweet feed and grain. Her groom, Carlos Hernandez, sat in the knee-deep straw, quietly minding her legs. Laura De Seroux--trainer, pragmatist, horse lover--stepped inside and ran her hands down the filly's sleek neck.

"Go ahead, feel how soft she is," the trainer said tenderly, allowing a visitor a firsthand look at a first-class star. "Look, she doesn't even need to be tied up...You can hug her anywhere...Isn't she beautiful? Feel that--it's just like velvet. Shiny, huh?"

This was a relaxed, worry-free day, typical at the bucolic San Luis Rey Downs Training Center in San Diego County. Here, "Honeybear"--known to the rest of the racing world as Azeri--and her stablemates have the optimal surroundings, the chance at a low-key life in a high-stress game. There are palm trees. There's an offshore breeze. Each day Azeri is turned loose in a sand pen, where she can roll, lounge, sleep, eat, and soak up the sun, all at her own leisure. What a life.

Every month or so, however, Azeri boards a van and heads toward the spotlight, where the rest of us can only wait impatiently to witness her splendor once more. Her latest flash of brilliance came by way of a dominating 31?2-length cruise in the $211,400 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. I) on May 25. By now, it's almost routine.

"I've been around many top, top fillies and mares working for Charlie, and they all had a hole in them somewhere," recalled De Seroux, turning the pages back to the glory days of Monsieur Whittingham. "Estrapade, Dahlia, Gay Style, Hidden Light. And I don't see a hole in this one. There's no holes. Her little world is perfect. It's scary that she seems to get better and better and stronger and stronger, but it seems so."

Azeri's emergence as a divisional force has been meteoric, light years away from that lazy day last August when she first walked into De Seroux's life. There was no need to get excited then--at least not right away. At first glance, in fact, Azeri was rather plain-Jane, just a scrawny daughter of Jade Hunter with a conspicuous white splotch on her rump. A simple gallop soon convinced De Seroux the young filly had a touch of quality. But when the callow Azeri turned in an explosive half-mile drill just days later, De Seroux saw the gleam of a golden future and promptly phoned co-owner Michael Paulson.

"Mike," he heard the inspired voice say, "this filly's awesome!"
Her assessment was dead on. Last November, when Azeri aired by six lengths first time out, everyone else was in on the secret. And there was every reason to think that Azeri--still untested after three starts--was ready to take her game to another level in February's La Canada Stakes (gr. II). The plan nearly worked. It was a narrow defeat, imputed to an ugly start, but a loss that also came at a price.

"She laid it down," De Seroux remembered. "She tried so hard to win that day, to overcome being so far back. That's the first time she acted like a race took anything out of her. I was worried for the first couple weeks because she backed off the feed tub and she laid down in her pen and really slept a lot."
Since then, however, Azeri's been solid gold. She tackled the best the West Coast could muster and won the Santa Margarita Handicap (gr. I) for fun, then did it again, despite another belated break, in Oaklawn's Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I). The 11?16-mile Milady wasn't supposed to be child's play. Then again, most didn't expect Azeri to shoot right to the lead, either.

"You don't take away anything that comes easy to 'em," said jockey Mike Smith, a man who has ridden a plethora of top-shelf distaffers. "It was just a matter of time before she was going to break good. She's got the ability, and she doesn't mind being up there. She's already shown that. Why not let her if she can do it easy?"

As it was, Azeri never gave them a chance. Her fractions were legit--:23.42, :46.46, 1:10.27--and by the time she passed the quarter pole, the others were spent just trying to keep pace. It was a simple gesture from Smith, a slight tightening of the reins, that soon gave Azeri her cue to slam the door shut. Streaking under the wire, her efficient stride carrying the colors of the Allen Paulson Living Trust, she stopped the timer unchallenged in 1:42.02.

"There's no words in my vocabulary that can describe her," Smith said. "She just seems to be getting better every time she runs."

"My filly ran great. The other filly's just too much," conceded Eddie Delahoussaye, who had a good view from atop second-place Affluent. "She might be somethin' special."

Right now, that seems to be the general consensus. With just seven races to her name, Azeri has gone from a mere rumor to one of the top fillies in the country. Her feats thus far have many veterans shaking their heads in disbelief. Already Azeri has racked up a trio of grade Is--and the year's not even halfway over. And now, just seven months into her burgeoning career, she sits on the verge of the June 22 Vanity Handicap (gr. I) and potential history. Over the last four decades, only Bayakoa and Paseana were able to win the Santa Margarita, Apple Blossom, Milady, and Vanity in the same year. Both were 5-year-olds when they did it. Azeri, if she pulls it off next month, would turn the trick at 4.

"I've heard people comment Azeri's done what horses normally just don't do--develop that quickly," reflected De Seroux, her devotion unwavering. "She's absolutely one in a lifetime. I don't take a moment of this for granted. I just feel so lucky to have her."

Astra's Turn
Just three doors down from Azeri, in a stall directly opposite the cozy barn office, abides De Seroux's other diva, Astra. Her looks alone can stop you in your tracks. Like Azeri, her ability is second to none. Fundamentally, however, A & A march to a radically different beat.

Lithe and agile, Azeri has the air of a puma, effortlessly bounding around the track and eternally relaxed. Astra, on the other hand, is power incarnate, her calm exterior masking inner workings De Seroux best describes as turbulent. If Azeri idles to a Vivaldi concerto, then Astra definitely has Metallica piped throughout her mighty body. There's an exclamation point on every move she makes.

"If she just clears her nose, it's like 'BOOSH!' She blows me off my chair," De Seroux said. "When she bucks, it's actually frightening. The riders feel like little peanuts on her back. Everything she does is big."

No kidding. Though astraphobia at this point doesn't have any clear reference to the big girl herself--it formally denotes the fear of being struck by lightning--it's only a matter of time. There may not be much difference between the two anyway. Following Azeri's lead, Astra completed a dream weekend for De Seroux on May 27, thundering over the Hollywood grass to stun Starine in the $474,000 Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IT) at nine furlongs.

"Do you know what kind of turn of foot it took to get there?" marveled jockey Kent Desormeaux, still perched atop the bay mare. "She is unbelievable."


(Chart, Equibase)