Azeri: A Standard of Excellence

Azeri wins the 2004 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland.
Azeri wins the 2004 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland. (BloodHorse/Anne Eberhardt)

Allen E. Paulson and his family are no doubt best known in Thoroughbred racing for owning the great champion Cigar, one of the sport’s most brilliant males.

Yet the Paulsons’ stable also had a fabulous stretch of success with fillies and mares. Allen and his wife, Madeleine, raced an impressive of list of distaff champions that included Eliza (1992 2-year-old filly), Ajina (1997 3-year-old filly), Escena (1998 champion older female), and Estrapade (1986 turf female).

The best of those fabulous fillies, though, raced after Allen’s death in July 2000.

Bred by Allen E. Paulson and racing under the name of the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust, Azeri debuted on Nov. 1, 2001 in a maiden race at Santa Anita Park.

Azeri wins the 2002 Apple Blossom en route to a Horse of the Year title.
Azeri wins the 2002 Apple Blossom en route to a Horse of the Year title. (Jim Linscott photo/BloodHorse)

By the time her career came to an end after the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Azeri had 17 wins in 24 starts and at 70.8% sported an even better career winning percentage than the mighty Cigar (19 of 33, 57.5%). She also had earnings of $4,079,820 which stood as the all-time best total for a female until Zenyatta came around, and in 2010 would join Cigar as the two Hall of Famers who names were permanently linked to Paulson.

Azeri may not have won 16 straight races like Cigar, but like him, she set standards of excellence few horses have ever matched.

Michael Paulson, Allen’s son, headed the family’s racing operation at the time of Azeri’s first race. Little was expected from the homebred daughter of Jade Hunter as she made her belated career debut near the end of her 3-year-old season. She was sent off at 17-1 odds in a field of nine, but a six-length victory changed any and all impressions as Azeri won impressively at first asking for trainer Laura de Seroux and regular rider Mike Smith, covering six furlongs in a very fleet 1:08.82.

A pair of allowance wins followed, but Azeri’s stakes debut resulted in a runner-up finish to Summer Colony in the 2002 La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita.

The loss stung, but what came next resurrected memories of Cigar. Azeri reeled off 11 straight wins, taking four straight Grade 1 stakes: the Santa Margarita, Apple Blossom, Milady Breeders’ Cup Handicap, and Vanity Handicap. Wins in the Grade 2 Clement Hirsch and Lady’s Secret Breeders’ Cup Handicap followed and set the stage for her coronation in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Sent off as an $1.80-to-1 favorite, Azeri romped by five lengths to secure not just an Eclipse Award as the year’s champion older female but also the title of 2002’s Horse of the Year for the Paulsons and De Seroux.

Azeri continued her winning ways in 2003, taking the Apple Blossom, Milady, Vanity, and Hirsch, but in her final prep for the Breeders’ Cup she finished second as a 1-5 favorite in the Lady’s Secret at Santa Anita. A tendon injury discovered later marked a premature end to a campaign which would be rewarded with a second straight crown as the best older female.

De Seroux wanted to retire her, but Michael Paulson believed she could return to the races and brought in D. Wayne Lukas to take over her training.

In April of 2004, Azeri made her comeback in the Apple Blossom, but the injury and the debate about her retirement created doubts about her capabilities. She was dismissed as just the third choice in a field of six.

She once again ran like a champion, though, winning by a length and a half for her third triumph in as many tries in Oaklawn Park’s Grade 1 test.

Azeri wins the 2004 Go For Wand Stakes at Saratoga.
Azeri wins the 2004 Go For Wand Stakes at Saratoga. (Skip Dickstein photo/BloodHorse)

The rest of 2004 was not as glimmering as 2003 and 2002 were, yet even though she won just two of her next seven races, she nevertheless became the first distaff runner to be named the champion older female in three straight years.

“When (Azeri) was on top of the world, she was on top of the world. She was amazing. She did everything we asked of her,” Smith said in 2010 after Azeri was voted into the Hall of Fame.

Her final start came in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic when she finished fifth behind Ghostzapper.

Yet if there was a race that fall which encapsulated everything about her, it came one start earlier in the Spinster Stakes. In Keeneland’s Grade 1 classic for distaff runners, Azeri was sent off as a heavy 2-5 favorite and drew off to win decisively by three lengths.

It didn’t happen all the time in 2004, but on that October day, Azeri reminded everyone that Cigar was not the only the Hall of Fame runner to sport the Paulsons’ red, white, and blue colors.

There was also a filly who was every bit as worthy as him of the mantle of a champion.

Fun Facts About Azeri

  • Azeri and Zenyatta are the only horses to receive an Eclipse Award as the champion older female in three straight years.
  • Allen E. Paulson, an aviator, named Azeri after a checkpoint for airlines in Baku, Azerbaijan.
  • Azeri was bought back by Paulson for $110,000 at the 1999 Keeneland September Yearling sale.
  • Oaklawn Park, where Azeri won the Apple Blossom three times, is now home to the Azeri Stakes.
  • Azeri was sold as a broodmare for $2.25 million to Japanese interests at the 2009 Keeneland November sale.
  • Azeri was the third female to be named Horse of the Year, following All Along and Lady’s Secret.

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