Horse of the Year?
It can’t be War Emblem. Sure, he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and got a free pass in the Haskell, but what has he done lately? He’s a one-dimensional runner who faded when challenged in the Pacific Classic and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It can’t be Came Home, who except for winning the Hopeful as a 2-year-old, never won outside of California and tired faster than an octogenarian taking a stress test in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It can’t be Medaglio d’Oro, who won only one Grade I race all year, the Travers.
Ditto for Evening Attire.
It can’t be Volponi, winner of the Classic as the longest shot in the race. He paid $89 to become this year’s Arcangues.
It can’t be Orientate. He’s a sprinter.
It can’t be Rock of Gibraltar. He won 10 of 12 in Europe, but was an eventful second in his only United States start, the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
It can’t be 2-year-old filly Storm Flag Flying or 2-year-old colt Vindication. They’re both undefeated, but they’re still 2-year-olds that have run only four times. Only two juveniles have been named Horse of the Year in the past 31 years--Favorite Trick in 1997 and Secretariat in 1972.
That leaves Azeri, who left East Coast turf writers choking on their bias after she won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by displaying the same high-powered acceleration and rapid fractions she has shown all year. She went to the front at the start of the 1 1/8-mile race and improved her position, winning by five lengths under jockey Mike Smith. Thanks to the East Coast “wise guys,” Azeri paid a generous $5.40 to win, instead of $3.80, like she would have if the steam artists had taken her efforts seriously. They just wouldn’t believe their eyes.
It was Azeri’s seventh consecutive victory, five of them in Grade I races, and her 10th in 11 career starts. Azeri’s only defeat came by one length to Summer Colony in the La Canada Stakes last Feb. 9. Azeri cut her leg leaving the gate in that one, else she might be undefeated. Summer Colony finished eighth and last in the Distaff. Azeri has won her races by a combined 33 3/4 lengths, an average of nearly four lengths per victory. Yes, she beat only females, but that’s not her fault. She just runs in her races, she doesn’t pick ”˜em.
When Azeri is named Horse of the Year early in 2003, the 4-year-old daughter of Jade Hunter, trained by Laura De Seroux, will become the first female to win the crown since Lady’s Secret in 1986.
The good news is Azeri is likely to race again next season. “It would be a shame not to,” said Michael Paulson, who calls the shots for the Allen Paulson Living Trust, which races Azeri for Michaels’ father, the late Allen Paulson. It was Paulson who campaigned the legendary Cigar, winner of 16 consecutive races and Horse of the Year in 1995 and 1996. “She’s a superstar and we’re going to let her race,” Michael said. “She loves to race. That time she came in second, her first stakes when she cut herself coming out of the gate, she was so upset it took her about a week before she started eating again.”
As for Horse of the Year, De Seroux said it’s up to the voters. “(But) Azeri has never been in danger of losing a race,” the 50-year-old protege of the late Charlie Whittingham said. “She has a record that is rarely seen. It’s rare that you find a horse that can put together a win streak like that and only be second once in her life.”
Rare indeed. Rare enough to make her Horse of the Year.
THE HOMESTRETCH: Gary Stevens is on a riding break to devote his time to the upcoming Universal film, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” which is due to hit the theaters next October. “I’ll be back for the main meet at Santa Anita,” said the Hall of Fame jockey, who plays George (The Iceman) Woolf in the movie. “I’ll be working on the film right up until Christmastime.” Former jockey Corey Black also is working on the film, and while the 33-year-old has been working horses on both coasts “off and on” for the past few months, he says he’s not planning a comeback. “I’m spending a lot of time working on the Seabiscuit movie, too,” said Black, who admits to weighing 140 pounds, 24 over his riding weight. “I don’t have any specific role,” said the loquacious Black. “I’m the one with the white pants and the fattest ass.” . . . One former rider who is coming back is Julie Krone, the only female jockey in the Hall of Fame. She announced on Oct. 18 that she will return to the saddle shortly. Asked why, the 39-year-old Krone said she had gone through “a lot of life changes” during her retirement, including a year of mourning for her mother, Judi, who died after a lengthy bout with cancer. “My mom’s illness kind of put a damper on things,” said Krone, who retired on April 19, 1999, with 3,545 wins, a record for a female rider. “I couldn’t work without being distracted. She passed away in December of 1999, and by the time you get over a parent dying, that takes another year. Eventually, I was feeling better physically and mentally. I started getting on horses for Richard Mandella last year at Del Mar, and while I was working at Hollywood Park (as inter-track TV host), the thought occurred to me that I’d like to ride again. It kind of crept up on me, but soon I was galloping horses again at Del Mar, and I said, ”˜What the heck.’” Krone, inducted into the Hall of Fame on Aug. 7, 2000, is the only woman rider to win a Triple Crown event, capturing the 1993 Belmont Stakes aboard Colonial Affair.