Azeri Stirs Emotions
It was an emotional, dewy-eyed day for the people surrounding Azeri as the brilliant 4-year-old filly, making a rare appearance outside California, racked up a five-length win in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Arlington Park on Saturday.
Trainer Laura de Seroux thought about her mentor, the late Charlie Whittingham, and choked up. Michael Paulson, who heads the family trust that manages Azeri, thought about his deceased father, Allen Paulson, who bred the filly.
“I know Charlie was watching,” said De Seroux, only the second female trainer to saddle a Breeders’ Cup winner. The other is Jenine Sahadi, who won the Sprint with Lit de Justice in 1996 and with Elmhurst in 1997.
Whittingham, a Hall of Famer, had been the oldest conditioner to saddle a Breeders’ Cup winner -- Sunday Silence in 1989 -- until P.G. Johnson, a year older at 77, saddled Volponi for his upset win in Saturday’s Classic.
“I wish my dad could have been here,” Michael Paulson said. “This filly is in a league of her own. She’s a super horse. She’s a gift left by my father.”
Azeri, winning for the 10th time in 11 career starts, thrust herself into horse-of-the-year consideration, and could very well win the title after all of the leading contenders were outrun by Volponi.
Mike Smith, who rode Azeri, also won another race, the Juvenile, with undefeated Vindication, who stamped himself as the early favorite for next year’s Kentucky Derby, even though a Juvenile winner has never won the Derby. Jockey John Velazquez also had a two-win day, aboard Storm Flag Flying in the Juvenile Fillies and Starine in the Filly and Mare Turf. The other winners were Orientate in the Sprint, as trainer Wayne Lukas added to his Breeders’ Cup record with a 17th win; the Irish import High Chaparral in the Turf; and Domedriver from France in the Mile as the heavily favored Rock Of Gibraltar settled for second, unable to completely overcome a poor start.
Finishing second to Azeri was Farda Amiga, another California-based filly. Take Charge Lady, the Eastern threat who had figured to be Azeri’s chief rival, was sixth in the eight-horse field.
Azeri ran a fast opening six furlongs in 1:09 3/5 and never stopped. Her final time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:48 3/5.
“She just cantered across the finish line,” Paulson said. “She’s run a [1:08 4/5] under 127 pounds [four more than Saturday], so this wasn’t surprising.”
Smith hiked his Breeders’ Cup win total to 10, which ranks him behind Jerry Bailey with 13 and Pat Day with 12.
“She could wind up being the greatest [filly] ever,” Smith said of Azeri, who is scheduled to keep running next year. “The race went just like I dreamed last night. Every step of the way was a celebration. She went out there like a rocket, the best she’s ever broke.”
A look at the other races:
Trainer Bob Baffert, breaking an 0-for-20 Breeders’ Cup slump, saddled his third winner in the series and ran 1-2-4 with Vindication, Kafwain and Bull Market. Hold That Tiger, who broke in the air at the start, recovered to finish third.
“Even running a mile and an eighth [a one-time extended distance for what has been a 1 1/16-mile race] didn’t bother him,” Baffert said, “and that’s encouraging. We don’t need to run him again [this year]. We’ll freshen him up before we run him again next year. We’ve got a lot of bragging rights before that comes.”
Vindication, a $2.15-million yearling purchase by Satish Sanan, is undefeated in four races at three tracks. He’s a son of Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown champion who died this year.
In a gutsy effort, Storm Flag Flying was passed by Baffert’s Composure inside the eighth pole, but came back to win by half a length. Storm Flag Flying is undefeated in four starts.
“Against any other horse we would have won,” said Smith, who rode Composure. “But we ran into a champion and a half today.”
Lukas only had two starters this year, both in the Sprint. Orientate, who went in with a four-race winning streak, wore down the longshot Thunderello to win by half a length. Lukas’ other horse, Day Trader, finished 11th, and Kona Gold, trying to win the Sprint for the second time, ran fourth.
Orientate is owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, who belonged to a partnership that won the 1994 Juvenile with Timber Country, but this was their first outright Breeders’ Cup win. The Lewises ran second and third in Saturday’s Juvenile Fillies.
High Chaparral, ridden by Mick Kinane for trainer Aidan O’Brien, beat With Anticipation by 1 1/4 lengths. Favored at 9-10, High Chaparral had won four of five starts in Europe this year, and finished third in the Arc de Triomphe.
O’Brien’s Landseer, a 3-year-old colt who had earned almost $1 million, suffered a compound fracture of the right front cannon bone, just below the knee, and was euthanized.
Landseer, who was making a promising late run, was threatening before he went down at the top of the stretch.
The Mile winner, Domedriver, paid $54. He beat Rock Of Gibraltar by three-quarters of a length for only his sixth win in 16 starts.
Rock Of Gibraltar, at 4-5, had won seven straight Group One races in Europe.
Filly and Mare Turf
Trainer Bobby Frankel tried to sell Starine one race after he bought her in France in 2001, but nobody would meet his price. Winless in three starts this year, Starine thrives on the yielding turf that she ran over Saturday, and punched out a 1 1/2-length win over Banks Hill, who won the race last year.
Frankel also recently began training Banks Hill for Juddmonte Farms.
“It was a bittersweet result,” Frankel said. “I beat my biggest client. I might not have a job tomorrow.”
Starine paid $28.40. Frankel is the first owner-trainer combination in the Breeders’ Cup since Sonny Hine, who co-owned Skip Away with his wife Carolyn, saddled the colt for a 1997 win in the Classic.