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Azeri's Win Streak Ends

After 11 consecutive victories, reigning horse of the year loses to Got Koko in the $300,000 Lady's Secret Handicap at Santa Anita.

September 29, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Miche beat Citation, Dare And Go knocked off Cigar, and now Got Koko has beaten Azeri, shattering one more of racing's most enviable winning streaks.

Alex Solis, 39, sure wasn't around when Miche, in 1950, cut off Citation at 16 wins, but he was astride Dare And Go in 1996 when Cigar's 16 in a row ended, and he was the spoiler again Sunday at Santa Anita, where Got Koko won the $300,000 Lady's Secret Handicap to stop Azeri at 11 in a row.

Azeri, who finished third, beaten by 2 1/4 lengths, was moved up to second after a disqualification that didn't affect the 5-year-old mare's stretch run, but that was of no solace to Michael Paulson, who owns the horse, and trainer Laura de Seroux.

When Cigar was beaten by Dare And Go in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in 1996, Paulson's late father, Allen Paulson, walked away quietly, crediting Richard Mandella, Dare And Go's trainer, for softening up Cigar with speedy stablemate Siphon. Michael Paulson wasn't nearly as charitable after Azeri, who was bred by his father, bit the dust for only the second time in 16 starts and the first time since running second to Summer Colony in the La Canada at Santa Anita in February 2002.

Paulson blamed Mike Smith's ride in the Lady's Secret, and even indirectly criticized De Seroux for her choice of races.

"I wish I had followed my instincts and run in the Whitney [at Saratoga last month], but they talked me out of it," Paulson said. "But I guess that's old news now."

Instead of the Whitney, against males, Azeri stayed within her division in August, winning the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar, on a day when Got Koko finished second, beaten by 3 1/4 lengths. With the chance to challenge the streaks of Citation and Cigar no longer hanging over her head, Azeri might now run in the Classic, against males, instead of the Distaff on Breeders' Cup day at Santa Anita on Oct. 25. Azeri won the Distaff and was voted horse of the year last year, but this time, to win another national title, she would need to win the Classic.

"Mineshaft or not, I would like to try the Classic," Paulson said, referring to Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and the horse-of-the-year favorite. Mineshaft might be retired rather than shipping from New York to California for the Breeders' Cup.

Azeri usually wins her races on the front end, but in the Lady's Secret she broke slowly and going down the backside she found herself behind a group of horses for the first time since the La Canada. After the opening half-mile, run in :47 2/5, Azeri was ahead of only one horse, Got Koko, and almost four lengths behind the pace-setting Royally Chosen. By the time Azeri kicked in, Got Koko was traveling faster in her wake.

At the head of the stretch, Elloluv had moved to the lead, with Adoration second and Azeri third, just ahead of Got Koko and two lengths from the front. Got Koko came on to win by a half-length, leaving Elloluv 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Azeri. After a stewards' inquiry, Azeri and Adoration were moved up to second and third, and Elloluv was dropped to fourth place.

Azeri, who went off at 1-5, carried a career-high 128 pounds, 10 more than Got Koko. Trained by Bruce Headley, Got Koko paid $12 to win, running 1 1/16 miles in 1:42 4/5.

"This was ridiculous," Paulson said, referring to the ride by a Hall of Fame jockey who has been aboard Azeri in all of her races. "This horse is a front-runner. The pace was so slow that [Smith] should have taken her out earlier. There was no pace. When she won this race last year, she set the pace of :22, :45 and 1:08, and she's a much stronger mare this year, when it was :23 and :47. I was a little scared before the race, because [Smith] said, 'I'm going to hold her back and see how the pace sets up.' I'm going to have to be more vocal now about how this horse is ridden."

Coming off the track, Smith said to De Seroux: "I gave her a lot of time to get running. I gave her 3 1/2 [furlongs] to get running."

Smith said Azeri had been quiet in the post parade.

"She's usually on her toes," Smith said. "I'm at a loss for words. I don't know what to say. That wasn't her. She broke really sluggishly, but that's not unusual for her. They were looking for her and were going to carry her [outside]. I thought I'd be able to tuck in behind them and save ground, and be able to wheel to the outside anytime I wanted. But I just couldn't get her running."

Got Koko, a Texas-bred who's owned by Headley and Paul Leung, won for the seventh time in 13 starts. She won the La Brea and La Canada at Santa Anita this winter.

"I always thought my filly had a chance," Solis said. "This was just as good as beating Cigar. He was a horse who had traveled all over the world and won. Azeri's a tremendous filly, but my filly is a great one too. Dare And Go, now Got Koko. Two pretty incredible wins."

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