2004 Eclipse Older Female: Azeri

2004 Eclipse Older Female: Azeri
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Hers is a familiar name in these pages, and her star has not diminished over time. Azeri, 2002 Horse of the Year and champion older mare in 2002 and 2003, has now made it a three-peat in that category. The 2004 Eclipse puts North America's all-time leading money earner for fillies and mares on her own plateau--ahead of Paseana (1992, 1993), Bayakoa (1989, 1990), and Susan's Girl (1973, 1975), the only other two-time Eclipse Award-winning older mares.

She gathered more votes than Sightseek to earn the crown. The two hooked up last year, with Azeri collecting 123 first-place ballots to Sightseek's 107. Aiding Azeri in her quest is not only her popularity with the racing public, but the fact that in 2004 she surpassed the $4-million mark in earnings, placing her on top of the mountain for North American females.

"I know she didn't have her typical undefeated season," joked Michael Paulson, who raced Azeri in the name of his late father's Allen Paulson Living Trust. "But she won three tough grade I races at three separate tracks and beat all the best."

Indeed, Azeri and Sightseek each defeated the other once in 2004, Azeri's day coming in the Go for Wand Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga. Although Azeri won just three races from eight starts, her campaign was unique in that all eight efforts came in grade I tilts, and two of those were against the boys, something Paulson had been spoiling to try since 2003. If not for some questionable riding tactics, Azeri's record might look even better.

She ran in the seven-furlong Humana Distaff Handicap (gr. I) on the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) undercard, certainly not her best distance, and found herself caught inside in a speed duel the entire race. Later in the year, in the Personal Ensign Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga, she was moved into an unnecessary speed duel on the backstretch that likely cost her victory on the day.

Paulson could have played it safe with Azeri and run her in the Breeders' Cup Distaff - Presented by Nextel (gr. I), where a victory would have locked up the Eclipse Award. But he chose instead the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) against the best of the opposite sex. Racing inside on the unkindest part of the track, Azeri ran an even fifth, defeating most of the field.

"We had already beaten the top fillies and mares, and the 3-year-olds were no match for her," claimed Paulson. "When we went to the Classic, articles said they heard a cheer from all her would-be opponents in the Distaff. I have no regrets running her in the Classic. She ran a great race in under 2:01 with no urging, which would have won the last five Classics. She didn't tire. She was motoring."

Trained in 2004 by D. Wayne Lukas, Azeri started the campaign with her third consecutive Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) victory. Besides the Go for Wand, she also took the Overbrook Spinster (gr. I) at Keeneland with ease. In May, she tried the boys for the first time in the Met Mile (gr. I) at Belmont, but was soundly defeated, finishing eighth of nine.

With the whispers growing louder that it was time for Paulson to call it quits with the then-6-year-old chestnut, Azeri shocked everyone with her Go for Wand victory over favored Sightseek. The daughter of Jade Hunter earned better than $1 million on the year.

"She's quite the star," noted Paulson, whose father bred Azeri. "Even if someone else owned her I'd say the same thing. Her guts and determination are phenomenal."

In December, Paulson made the decision to retire Azeri.

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