10/28/2006 12:00AM

Call Perfect Drift a Classic veteran

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Think you feel old? How about Perfect Drift? He first competed in the Breeders' Cup in 2002. One of his rivals in that year's Classic was Came Home, whose first crop of runners is now on the track and includes C P West, who is running in this year's Juvenile. Perfect Drift, meanwhile, keeps chugging along. Next Saturday, he will make a record fifth straight start in the Classic, only hours after the son of one of his rivals from 2002 competes.

Now 7, Perfect Drift has been one of the leaders of his division for five seasons, beginning with a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby in 2002. His best performances this year might not measure up to his best from previous years, but he has done enough to merit inclusion in the $5 million Classic, a race in which he has continued to defy his age.

Perfect Drift was 12th and last the first time he ran in the Classic. In subsequent years, he has finished sixth, then fourth, and last year he turned in his best race yet in the Classic, finishing third, just 2 1/2 lengths behind Saint Liam, the Horse of the Year. This will be the first time Perfect Drift has raced in a Classic at Churchill Downs, which has not hosted a Breeders' Cup since 2000, when Perfect Drift was a yearling.

Churchill Downs is practically the home court for Perfect Drift. He trains just a few miles away, at the Trackside training facility - where he worked on Saturday morning - and he has raced 12 times at Churchill, more than any other track. In his nine starts on Churchill's main track, he owns just one win - in the 2003 Stephen Foster Handicap - but he has finished in the money every time.

That consistency is an endearing quality for a horse who, despite having earned $4,660,483, has a reputation of having left too much on the table. Perfect Drift has finished second 13 times, including nose losses in this year's Stephen Foster and the 2004 Whitney at Saratoga. This year, in six starts, Perfect Drift is winless, but he has finished second four times, including in his last start, the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park.

Perfect Drift has worked three times since the Kentucky Cup in preparation for the Breeders' Cup. On Saturday, with his regular work partner, Joe Deegan, Perfect Drift worked five furlongs at Trackside in 1:02.40 on a track rated "good."

A Classic victory by Perfect Drift would be a major upset, since he will be a longshot against the likes of Bernardini, Lava Man, Invasor, and European standouts David Junior and George Washington. But according to Murray Johnson, the Australian-born trainer who has brilliantly kept Perfect Drift going through 41 starts, Perfect Drift is coming into this year's Classic better than last year.

"Last year his race before the Classic was disappointing," Johnson said of Perfect Drift's fourth-place finish as the 4-5 favorite in the Hawthorne Gold Cup. "He stayed in the barn for three weeks, and only trained for two weeks. Running third in the Classic was a great effort."

This year's field "looks like a great bunch," Johnson said. "There's a lot of depth, a lot of intrigue, especially with the horses coming from Europe."

A victory would cap an emotional past three months for Johnson, who nearly lost his father, Geoffrey, this summer at Del Mar. Geoffrey Johnson, who still lives in Australia, joined his son at Del Mar when Perfect Drift was to run in the Pacific Classic. But two days before that race, Geoffrey suffered a massive heart attack in the stable area and was revived only because a track-installed defibrillator was nearby.

After recuperating in California, Geoffrey came to Kentucky to continue his recuperation with Johnson, but he suffered a stroke. Geoffrey was well enough to return to Australia about one month ago, but he's still ailing.

"He's happier there," Johnson said. "His friends are there, so he has lots of visitors. But he has a stomach tube that's annoying the hell out of him. Overall, though, he's getting a little more comfortable."