GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Leave it to D. Wayne Lukas to add intrigue to an already appealing Breeders' Cup Classic.
By entering Azeri in Saturday's $4 million Classic, the Hall of Fame trainer is taking a huge gamble that his brilliant mare can step up and beat the best males in America's richest horse race.
"I'm always pumped, but this is special," Lukas said. "It's the marquee event of the year, along with the Derby, and Azeri adds another dimension to go over there and try to do something unprecedented."
Azeri, with 17 wins in 23 career races, will attempt to become the first female to win the Classic. Two others have tried: Triptych was sixth in 1986; Jolypha was third in 1992.
"She has beaten all the top fillies and mares," said Azeri's owner, Michael Paulson, "and part of the challenge of sport is to scale that next mountain."
The 11/4-mile Classic is the most compelling of the eight races on the $14 million Breeders' Cup program at Lone Star Park. Starting with Azeri, the 13-horse Classic field includes some fascinating story lines, some of which could have a Horse of the Year ending:
- Pleasantly Perfect returns from an extended layoff of 69 days to defend his Classic title. The 6-year-old horse, with more than $7 million in earnings, attempts to become the second two-time Classic winner, and first to sweep the Dubai World Cup and Classic in the same year.
"I've had some pretty good horses, but I can't think of one that I could say was any better," said trainer Richard Mandella, who won a record four Breeders' Cup races last year at Santa Anita.
- Birdstone makes his championship pitch coming off a 63-day layoff. The colt spoiled Smarty Jones' Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes, and can stake his claim to be 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year by adding the Classic to his Belmont and Travers' wins.
"It's such a long shot," trainer Nick Zito said. "But if he does pull it off, how can he not be?"
- Funny Cide is back, too. The 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner - ninth of 10 horses in last year's Classic - is coming off an exhilarating victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup this month, and even his usually pessimistic trainer is confident.
"He's doing better than he ever has in his life," Barclay Tagg said after the New York-bred gelding put in his final Classic tuneup at Belmont Park earlier this week.
- Ghostzapper and Roses in May - both unbeaten this year - also bear watching. Ghostzapper won the 1 1/8-mile Woodward in his last race, but moves up to a 1¼-mile race for the first time. Roses in May, one of three top Breeders' Cup contenders owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, is 5-for-5.
"He still has to step up and run his best race ever," Roses in May's trainer Dale Romans said. "He's done it every time he's needed to. Hopefully, he'll be able to do it one more time."
Pleasantly Perfect, with Jerry Bailey aboard, is the 5-2 morning-line favorite; trainer Bobby Frankel's Ghostzapper is next at 3-1; and Roses in May is 5-1. Birdstone and Funny Cide are 6-1. Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, is 15-1.
Lukas, who won the 1988 Kentucky Derby with the filly Winning Colors, believes Azeri's odds will drop once the betting begins. His reasoning? Half the crowd will be women, and they'll all bet on her.
The rest of the field includes Freefourinternet, Perfect Drift, Fantasticat, Personal Rush, Newfoundland, Bowman's Band and Dynever.
There's a chance of showers Saturday, with temperatures ranging from 75-80 degrees. At last year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, temperatures hovered near 100 degrees, plus smoke from nearby wildfires, created breathing problems for humans and horses, including Funny Cide.
Divisional bragging rights are on the line in other Breeders' Cup races.
- Roman Ruler is the 8-5 morning-line choice to defeat seven rivals in the $1.5 million Juvenile and give trainer Bob Baffert the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
- Kitten's Joy, owned by Ramsey and trained by Romans, is the even-money favorite to end a run of six straight victories by European horses in the $2 million Turf. Kitten's Joy, a 3-year-old colt, has won six of seven races this year.
- Six Perfections, the France-based filly, is out to defend her title in the $1.5 million Mile, which drew the only full field of 14 horses. The 4-year-old is winless in three starts this year, but is still the third choice at 5-1 behind Nothing to Lose and Special Ring.
- In the final start of her career, Storm Flag Flying will try to become the first horse to win two different Breeders' Cup races in the $2 million Distaff. The 4-year-old won the 2002 Juvenile Fillies.
"It's a great day of racing," Baffert said. "There is no room for error. You have to run your biggest race on the biggest day. You are either a big winner or you leave with a big 'L' on your forehead."