Michael Paulson's Azeri, a three-time champion who became North America's all-time richest female in winning the Aug. 1 Go for Wand Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga, was assigned top weight of 122 pounds in Friday's $400,000 Personal Ensign Handicap (gr. I) for fillies and mares at 1 1/4 miles at the Spa.
Azeri's performance in the Go for Wand over the highly regarded Sightseek reassured her trainer, Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, that the 6-year-old daughter of Jade Hunter is still capable of being a champion. "I think she's back at the level again and I really believe she is the best filly or mare in the country," Lukas said. "It's hard not to like her. She has been doing better now than any other time that I've had her. I can really see another good race from her."
The Personal Ensign will be Azeri's longest race. "I don't think the distance will be a problem," said Lukas, who is looking for his first Personal Ensign victory. "She's got a high cruising rate. When she gets in a race, she has learned how to be efficient. It may even benefit her to run longer. I know she's better running at two turns than one turn."
Without Sightseek, the question is: Who is capable of challenging Azeri? Storm Flag Flying, assigned 116 pounds, will be taking another shot at Azeri after finishing third in the Go for Wand for owner Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps and trainer Claude "Shug" McGaughey III, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame some three weeks ago.
Storm Flag Flying is trying to reestablish herself to champion status after earning the 2002 Eclipse Award for best 2-year-old filly. Since returning from an injury to her right hind leg earlier this year, the daughter of Storm Cat has won the Shuvee Handicap (gr. II) for her only added-money triumph.
Storm Flag Flying was in contention throughout the Go for Wand. But when she got back to the barn, McGaughey noticed some minor cuts on the back of her hind legs. "The cuts are healed, and she has been training well since," he said. "It would sure be nice to win. Right now, I'm just glad we've got the horse to go into the race."
Sixteen years go, McGaughey trained Personal Ensign to an undefeated career of 13 races, which ended with a dramatic finish in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) at Churchill Downs over Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Winning Colors. McGaughey won the Personal Ensign with Personal Business and Heavenly Prize when it was named the John A. Morris.
Taking on Azeri and Storm Flag Flying is a trio of 4-year-old fillies: Nevermore (by Unbridled), Roar Emotion (by Roar), and Board Elligible (by Goldminers Gold). Board Elligible, a restricted stakes winner at Belmont earlier this year, goes into the Personal Ensign off an Aug. 12 win at Saratoga. Roar Emotion, winner of this year's Sabin Handicap (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park, ran third in the Shuvee and most recently ran second in the Delaware Handicap (gr. III) at the Personal Ensign distance in her last start. Nevermore has run eight times, and never in a stakes, but has won three of four starts this year.
The field for Friday's Personal Ensign Handicap:
PP Horse Trainer Jockey Weight
1. Storm Flag Flying Claude McGaughey III John Velazquez 116
2. Azeri D. Wayne Lukas Pat Day 122
3. Nevermore H. James Bond Edgar Prado 110
4. Roar Emotion Kiaran McLaughlin Jerry Bailey 115
5. Board Elligible James Ferraro Pablo Fragoso 112