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Apr 12, 2004

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


In case you missed the movie Seabiscuit, you needed to be at Oaklawn Park
 last Saturday to see a modern-day Seabiscuit.    But this was no movie. This was real life. This was Azeri, a two-time
 champion, and the greatest racemare of her era, attempting a comeback
despite the fact that, only a few months ago, we were told she would never
 race again.    And this was no movie theater. Oaklawn Park was filled to its brim, with
 more than 30,000 people packed into its stands, and thousands more filling
 the infield.      Forget media coverage. There was no national television, except for
in-house TVG. And, try as I could, I could not find a single member of the
 national media in attendance. Even the nervous young guy from the paper in
nearby Tulsa didn"t show.       But it mattered not. When Azeri came on to the track from the infield
 saddling area, the place rocked with cheers. And, when she returned from her
 dramatic Apple Blossom victory against the best field of fillies and mares
assembled in years, the place went nuts. Jockey Mike Smith took off his cap,
 and waved it at the crowd. And her trainer, a fellow named D. Wayne Lukas,
 was near-tears.      Yes, I know. There"s no crying in baseball, and there"s supposed to be
 no crying in horse racing. But there were not too many dry eyes in sight.
 This was an all-timer. Right up there with Affirmed-Alydar. With Personal
 Ensign-Winning Colors. With Sunday Silence-Easy Goer.    Yes, and right there with Seabiscuit. The film and the book.    Maybe the only difference was that while Seabiscuit had to share the glory
 with owner, trainer and rider, Azeri had to share the moment only with her
celebrity trainer.     D. Wayne was treated like a rock star from the moment he hit Hot Springs
in a cargo jet last Wednesday. He couldn"t leave his tack room without being
 swarmed by adoring fans, mostly female.     I ran into one such fan at a redneck bar across the track on Saturday
evening, a few hours after Azeri"s Apple Blossom victory. She was an attractive
middle-aged blonde, sporting a smile from here to Little Rock.     "I asked Wayne for an autograph at the track," she said, "and told him
that I"ve had a crush on him since I was 17. And he told me that I don"t look a
 day older than 17. What a guy?"      Wayne"s popularity was such that he missed the chance to get down
on Azeri.      Lukas loves to bet as much as the next guy. And he was saying all week that
 if he could get 2-1 on Azeri, he"d grab it. Sure enough. Azeri was 2-1, and Wayne
 tried to get to the window. And he was going to play a lot more than $2.       But Wayne couldn"t get through an adoring mob of autograh seekers, and never
 could get to the window. "If only I had a runner," he said, "I could have made a
 score."       Lukas also said at the barn the next day that, next to his first Kentucky
 Derby win with Winning Colors, Azeri"s victory in the Apple Blossom last Saturday
 at Oaklawn Park was the biggest thrill of his professional career.       (For more information, consult "Notes and Quotes" on the oaklawn.com
web site).        An hour after Azeri won the Apple Blossom, Bobby Frankel sent out Peace Rules
 to win the Oaklawn Handicap in a gritty performance.        This was a match race from the bell with Edgar Prado on Saint Liam floating
 Jerry Bailey on Peace Rules wide through the first turn in :22 and :45. After
 three-quarters in "nine", Saint Liam called it a race, but Peace Rules forged ahead,
 and won decisively.        For Frankel, it was the end of a perfect day. Well, not quite the end. A
half-hour after the Oaklawn, he raced upstairs to a VIP room to catch a Frankel maiden
 win the last at Santa Anita.         Prior to the Oaklawn, Frankel and his bride Anita spent most of the afternoon
 with the writer of this column in a first-floor office. Armed with a clicker, and a
 stack of Forms and programs, he managed to catch just about every stakes run in the
 country, and a few claimers too.        Some of Frankel"s comments were classics.        Frankel had a horse in the Arcadia Handicap at Santa Anita, and spent the
first 90 seconds cursing his jock (David Flores) with language he and I remember from
 the mean streets of Brooklyn. Surprise! When the field turned for home, Frankel"s
 horse exploded to the lead, and won going away.        "Way to go, David," he yelled at the screen.        Later, when Funny Cide held on to win the Excelsior at Aqueduct, Frankel
stood up and cheered.         "I really like that horse, and his owners," Bob said. "They"re great for the
 game. I"m glad he won."         Historians might recall that it was Frankel who destroyed Funny Cide"s
Triple Crown bid last summer with Empire Maker.         "They made me the villain in New York," he said, "but I didn"t mind. In fact
 I loved it. I"m a New Yorker. I know from New Yorkers."         Some two hours before the Apple Blossom, I asked Frankel for his take on the
 race from the $2 bettor"s point of view. Frankel had Wild Spirit in the race, and
she was to go off as the favorite with Island Fashion the second choice, and Azeri
the third choice.         "Who do you like, John?," he asked me.         I told him I liked Island Fashion.         "No shot," he said. "It"s a two-horse race. Me and Lukas. I either catch
Azeri or I don"t. Go to the bank on it."         Of course, Frankel showed why he was the king of the $2 bettor long before
 he became a superstar trainer. He was dead right. Azeri led all the way. Wild Spirit
 closed for second. Island Fashion was nowhere.         After the race, Frankel half-heartedly congratulated Lukas (they are not now
or have never been buddies).         And, after Peace Rules won the Oaklawn, Frankel let loose his
real thoughts.         "Wayne won this round," said Bobby Frankel, "but I"ll get him next time with
 Sightseek. Do you know that Sightseek is 10-for-10 away from Santa Anita?".



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