Then and Now

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Azeri was Zenyatta before Zenyatta.

And Laura de Seroux understands. Now retired, the trainer steered Azeri through a Horse of the Year and champion older mare campaign in 2002, another divisional championship in 2003 and a winning streak that reached 11 races. Based in California, Azeri dominated the fillies and mares in her home state through that skein – and caught flack.

“The East Coast writers and people weren’t giving her much recognition because Summer Colony had beaten her and they thought (Azeri) was beating up on the same horses all the time out here,” de Seroux said Thursday. “Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”

Sure does.

Trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss hear the same complaints about Zenyatta. The champion older mare of 2009 has won 18 consecutive races, almost all of them in California. Critics want Zenyatta to come East, meet 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and other opponents, prove her greatness.

As if it needs proving.

Horses like Azeri and Zenyatta don’t come along very often. Sustained equine excellence shows up in only fleeting glimpses – teasing the humans who look for it and try to quantify it. Back in her exercise-rider days, de Seroux galloped six Grade I winners a day for Charlie Whittingham. They lost races regularly and Whittingham would simply mutter “we’ll live to fight again another day.”

From March 2002 to August 2003, Azeri fought and won – stringing together eight Grade I victories. Since her first start in November 2007, Zenyatta has fought and won – seemingly capping her career with a Breeders’ Cup Classic win last fall only to come back and win four more starts this year.

These types of runs should be savored, embraced, applauded. Compare them to any horse or era you want, but don’t demand more. Another day to fight is promised to no horse.

“People want you to take horses like this and see what they can’t do, instead of appreciating what they can do,” de Seroux said. “As a trainer, you can’t cave, you’ve got to do what’s right for your horse. Every time. You can’t turn it into Roman theater. You’re responsible.”

A Californian, de Seroux feels for Shirreffs but not simply out of loyalty.

“I’m right there with the Mosses and John Shirreffs heart and soul,” she said. “I love what they’re doing. You can’t really compare (Zenyatta and Azeri), but it’s history in the making – again. Winning streaks are to be cherished because they just don’t happen. Good horses beat each other all the time.”

Only they didn’t with Azeri (for a while) and they haven’t with Zenyatta.

De Seroux resisted the urge to start Azeri against colts and geldings, carefully managing her star and getting a rare Horse of the Year crown for a filly or mare. The next year the trainer did the same thing, stepping through the 2003 Apple Blossom, Milady, Vanity and Clement Hirsch before the streak finally ended in the Lady’s Secret Stakes (now called the Zenyatta) at Santa Anita Sept. 28 – the last time Azeri raced in de Seroux’s name.

The mare bled in that race, but recovered and was training for the Breeders’ Cup when de Seroux noticed a tendon injury. Azeri’s season ended, de Seroux recommended retirement – and lost her horse. Owner Michael Paulson sent Azeri to Wayne Lukas, who engineered another championship campaign in 2004.

De Seroux holds no grudges, and would make the same decision were she a trainer today. Now 58, she closed her racing operation in 2007 when the numbers and the success couldn’t keep pace with the work. The Rancho Santa Fe resident rides horses – hunters and jumpers – every day and assists her husband Emmanuel with his bloodstock business.

“I didn’t take out my trainer’s license until 1999 and I didn’t intend to train the rest of my life when I did,” she said. “When I walked away, it was time. I don’t have to feel bad every day now. Something goes wrong every day as a trainer. It’s not for the weak of heart.”

De Seroux did not make the trip to Saratoga for Azeri’s induction, though she asked about the broadcast schedule on HRTV and expects to watch. If she were here, she’d be smiling.

“I’d dwell on the good. I’m proud of her,” de Seroux said. “Azeri was an amazing part of my life. I’ve got no anger or resentment, no sour grapes.”

Just Azeri and Zenyatta.