Just three accepted the challenge of extending Azeri's two-race losing streak in Saturday's $300,000 Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I) for fillies and mares at Belmont Park, but the task figures to be far from easy for the 6-year-old champion.
She'll be facing another Eclipse Award winner in Storm Flag Flying, who is owned by the Phipps family, as well as defending Phipps' winner Sightseek and upset-minded Passing Shot in the 1 1/16-mile event. Azeri carries top weight of 123 pounds, spotting her rivals between three and seven pounds.
The 2002 Horse of the Year owned by the Allen Paulson Living Trust, Azeri will rejoin her own sex after facing males in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) on Memorial Day. In the worst performance of her 19-race career, Azeri made a middle move in the Met, but tired to finish eighth, beaten 6 3/4 lengths by the awesome Pico Central.
Azeri, with nine grade I victories to her credit, was the champion older female of 2002 and 2003. Starting in March of 2002 and going through August of 2003, the Jade Hunter
mare won all 11 of her starts. She tasted defeat for just the second time last September when she failed as the 1-5 favorite in the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup (gr. II).
Preparing for the Breeders' Cup last year, Azeri came down with a high white-cell count and blood in her respiratory system. Later, a subtle bowed tendon was discovered and her former trainer, Laura de Seroux, recommended she be retired.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas replaced De Seroux and the Paulson homebred was strong in her first race back, winning the Apple Blossom (gr. I) by 1 1/2 lengths over Wild Spirit.
Azeri's last two races, including the Met Mile, have not been all that impressive, but she had valid excuses in both. When she ran second in the Humana Distaff (gr. I) on Kentucky Derby Day, she was turning back to seven furlongs and got caught up chasing Randaroo, setting the race up for the winner, Mayo On the Side.
Saturday, she will be returning the distance of her last win and also a distance at which she is 8-for-9.
Storm Flag Flying, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2002, went undefeated in four starts that year including the Matron, Frizette and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (all grade I).
She's going the right direction after winning the Shuvee (gr. II) at Belmont earlier in the meet. Following a winless 3-year-old season that was limited to two starts because of injury, the daughter of Storm Cat
out of My Flag has won two of three races this year. In February at Gulfstream, she returned off an eight-month layoff to easily win an optional claimer.
She followed that with a flat third in the Distaff Breeders' Cup Handicap at Aqueduct in March. Turning back to seven furlongs in that race, she vied inside early before tiring in the four-horse field. She rebounded nicely to take the Shuvee, however.
Friday morning, Storm Flag Flying worked four furlongs in :48 2/5.
Juddmonte Farms' Sightseek had a shot to knock off Azeri as the top older female last year when Azeri did not run in the Breeders' Cup. However, Sightseek tanked in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), finishing fourth beaten 10 1/2 lengths as the 3-5 favorite, destroying her chances for an end-of-the-year award.
She won the Phipps by five lengths over Take Charge Lady and Mandy's Gold last year and is 3-for-3 over this track.
Sightseek has raced with mixed results in 2004, winning the Rampart (gr. II) at Gulfstream impressively in March but failing to hit the board as the favorite in the Santa Monica (gr. I) and Louisville Breeders' Cup (gr. II) at Churchill Downs in her last outing on April 30.
Joseph Shields Jr.'s Passing Shot has not come close to winning an Eclipse Award, but she has a penchant for pulling off big upsets like in the Personal Ensign (gr. I) at Saratoga in August, when she came back on the inside to defeat heavily-favored Wild Spirit. The master of upsets, Hall of Famer H. Allen Jerkens trains her, and Passing Shot was only beaten one-half length by Storm Flag Flying in the Shuvee. $300,000 Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I), fillies & mares 3 & up, 1 1/16 mile
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Azeri, Pat Day, 123, D. Wayne Lukas;
2. Passing Shot, Richard Migliore, 116, H. Allen Jerkens;
3. Sightseek, Jerry Bailey, 120, Bobby Frankel; and
4. Storm Flag Flying, John Velazquez, 117, Shug McGaughey.