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Azeri makes this a more attractive race

Filly entered to run in Breeders' Cup Classic

GRAND PRAIRIE, Tex. -- The $4 million Classic, the feature event on Saturday's Breeders' Cup card at Lone Star Park, just got tougher. Already loaded with talent, the Classic picked up another star attraction when owner Michael Paulson and trainer D. Wayne Lukas entered Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, against powerful males in the Classic instead of fellow females in the $2 million Distaff.

"It's Texas, and the Breeders' Cup is kind of like Texas hold 'em [a popular poker game], so we're going all-in," said Lukas, who announced the choice yesterday. "We're going to play our queens, and see what happens. It wasn't an easy decision. We looked over all the pros and cons. Michael decided late [Monday] night, at 10:30, and I backed him 100 percent. We haven't spent much time in the shallow end of the pool, anyway."

Only two fillies have tried the mile and one-quarter Classic in 20 runnings of the Breeders' Cup, and they were both European. Triptych finished sixth in 1986 at Santa Anita, and Jolypha ran third in 1992 at Gulfstream Park. From November of 2001, when Azeri broke her maiden, through August of 2003, Azeri won 14 of 15 starts, including the 2002 Distaff at Arlington Park.

However, now 6, she has won only three of seven starts (7-3-2-0) since Lukas took over her training to start the season, and she was eighth in the Met Mile at Belmont Park May 31, her first and only career start vs. the boys.

Also, this year's Classic, which will be drawn today, is expected to feature defending champion Pleasantly Perfect, who won the $6 million Dubai Cup and $1 million Pacific Classic; Birdstone, a 3-year-old who captured the Belmont Stakes, and Travers; Funny Cide, winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, who took the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup; Roses In May, winner of all five of his races this season; and Ghostzapper, who has won six of his last seven starts.

Rick Lee, who makes the line at Lone Star, indicated he was prepared to make Azeri 6-5 in the Distaff but will make her 15-1 in the Classic, barring scratches. However, Paulson and Lukas remain undaunted, bouyed by Azeri's victory in the Spinster at Keeneland Oct. 10.

"With all due respect to her competition, the Spinster was a very, very easy race for her," said Lukas, who is in the Hall of Fame and has won a record 17 Breeders' Cup races. "She relaxed beautifully. [Jockey] Pat Day was able to take her back. She is as good as hands can make her, and we're going to go for it. She's already won the Distaff [when trained by Laura De Seroux], and maybe she can do something this year that's never been done before.

"I'm looking forward to running her in the Classic. This is for $4 million, and I don't care whoever else shows up. I've trained 16 [Eclipse] champion fillies and mares. She's going to take this race to her competition. She never has a bad day, just good days and better days. She never throws in a bad effort. In the Classic, it may not be a winning effort, but we're all [adults], and if we get beat, we'll take our licking and go back to the barn."

Azeri won the first nine Grade 1 stakes she ever ran in, but there's little doubt she's lost a step since her best days, and she may be facing an impossible task Saturday. Lukas has an entrant, Stellar Jayne, in the Distaff, but he denied that is why Azeri was moved out of the Distaff.

"Stellar Jayne has different owners [Spendthrift Farm], and she had no impact on our decision," he said. "But now there are five or six horses with a chance in the Distaff, and Stellar Jayne is certainly one of them. I know a number of you are going to say `Wow' that we put Azeri in the Classic. But be a little bit careful because I think she'll run well. I told Michael, `When you're sitting in the stands Saturday I want you to be as comfortable as you can be. I don't want you to have any second thoughts. I want you to feel good.' He said: `I'd like to swing for the fences.' I said, `Let's go.'

"We'll give the Classic horses some trouble. I love the Breeders' Cup. This is my favorite time of year. I love to take 'em on, I love the competition. Saturday is going to be a hell of a day, and Azeri gives the Classic a little more pizzazz."

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