Making her first start of 2003, Azeri, the reigning horse of the year, did the expected and defended her title in the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.
However, her 11th victory in 12 starts, and sixth in a Grade I, was anything but easy.
Overcoming a slow start and a wide trip, the 5-year-old Jade Hunter mare, idle since her five-length domination of the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 26, got up in the final strides to edge pacesetter Take Charge Lady and win by a nose. Owned by the Allen Paulson Living Trust and trained by Laura De Seroux, Azeri, the 2-5 favorite, completed the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43 under jockey Mike Smith.
In receipt of five pounds (123-118) from the winner, Take Charge Lady finished a little more than three lengths in front of 17-1 shot Mandy's Gold, then came Affluent, Rhiana, Bien Nicole and Took Out.
Azeri became the second two-time winner of the Apple Blossom. Paseana won the race in 1992 and 1993 for owners Sid and Jenny Craig and trainer Ron McAnally.
Later in the program, Medaglia d'Oro had a much easier time, winning the $500,000 Oaklawn Park Handicap by nearly three lengths over 17-1 shot Slider.
The 1-10 favorite under jockey Jerry Bailey, the 4-year-old son of El Prado made the lead, set moderate fractions and won with something in reserve. Owned by Ed Gann and trained by Bobby Frankel, Medaglia d'Oro completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 3/5.
Father and son trainers Wally and Craig Dollase had a big day out of town.
After Craig won the $551,750 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland with Elloluv, Wally took the $500,000 Illinois Derby with Ten Most Wanted.
In winning her second Grade I, Elloluv, the 2-1 second choice, led every step of the way under new rider Robby Albarado and went on to beat the previously undefeated Lady Tak, the 13-10 favorite, by 3 3/4 lengths. In winning for the fourth time in seven starts for owner Paul Reddam, the 3-year-old Gilded Time filly ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.58.
"This filly has tremendous speed and she puts herself in the race," said Craig Dollase. "Robby did a great job slowing down the pace."
Against an ordinary field at Hawthorne, Ten Most Wanted, the 2-1 favorite, took command in the stretch after jockey Pat Day found room and went on to a four-length win in 1:51.47 for the 1 1/8 miles.
Owned by a partnership that includes James Chisholm, Michael Jarvis and the Horizon Stable, the Deputy Commander colt has won two of five.
Making his third start, Dynever became a stakes winner, easily capturing the $250,000 Aventura at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
Trained by Christophe Clement for owners Peter Karches and Catherine Wills, the 3-year-old Dynaformer colt and 9-10 favorite drew away from 4-1 third choice Supah Blitz to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Ridden by Edgar Prado, he ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.06 for his second victory.