08/05/2004 12:00AM

Check the sky, then consider Perfect Drift


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Apparently, public handicappers aren't the only folks baffled by what goes on in Saratoga. Weather prognosticators are routinely off the mark as well.

Thursday's forecast of a total wash-out is just the latest example. Taking heed of the flood watch and estimates for more than an inch of rain, the local citizenry burned the midnight oil and handicapped the card for "sloppy and off the turf," but awoke the next morning to find nary a cloud in the sky.

The revised forecast at 9 o'clock called for any leftover showers to move out of the area by around noon. Naturally, it began raining just as the steeplechasers were getting under way in the first race.

This recap is not meant as a malicious slap in the face to Doppler radar technology, merely to emphasize how unpredictable the weather can be here in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. It is especially apropos because, wouldn't you know it, showers are allegedly in the forecast for Whitney Day, and the chances of one of the race's main contenders may hinge on how much moisture, if any, is in the track.

That horse is Perfect Drift, whose two 1 1/8-mile dirt races last year resulted in victories over Horse of the Year Mineshaft in the Stephen Foster, and over the multiple Grade 1 winner Congaree in the Kentucky Cup, with respective Beyer Figures of 117 and 112.

Perfect Drift is something of an anomaly these days, a Thoroughbred who goes anywhere and everywhere, and never ducks the top horses. Since April of last year he has barnstormed the nation to run at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Turfway Park, Hawthorne, Santa Anita, and Prairie Meadows.

But while Perfect Drift was arguably one of the top three older males of 2003, this year he is The Forgotten Horse, winless from four starts for trainer Murray Johnson, who has been mired in a prolonged slump.

Recent developments suggest that things are about to turn around in the Whitney. After running subpar figures on turf and wet dirt in his first three starts this season, Perfect Drift underwent a myectomy (minor throat surgery) to alleviate a breathing problem shortly after the Stephen Foster. He immediately responded with an improved race in the Cornhusker, running a clear second behind Roses in May, who was loose on the lead.

The rail was not the place to be at Prairie Meadows on July 3. Roses in May, who has won five of six starts when able to control the pace, was kept well off the inside, and Perfect Drift was mired down on the rail through the stretch.

That race serves as a strong indication that Perfect Drift is coming back to his best form. He is going to get a much better setup in the Whitney, because Roses in May is not shaking loose again. Roses in May breaks from post 2, and right outside him is Yessirgeneralsir, who has been the pace-call leader in his last eight starts, including a 1:08.40 six-furlong split wiring the Lone Star Park Handicap, and a 1:34.80 mile in last month's Hollywood Gold Cup.

Additional early pressure will come in the form of Seattle Fitz (who, like Perfect Drift, has responded favorably to a recent myectomy), and of course, from Peace Rules, a game, come-again winner of the Suburban Handicap most recently after cutting out a 1:09.20 six furlongs.

While those four go at it tooth and nail, Perfect Drift and Pat Day project to be biding their time along the inside, and when he is right, there are not too many horses in North America who can outfinish him in a nine-furlong race on a fast track.

Perfect Drift is right now, and he has got the right setup. All he needs is a little cooperation from Mother Nature, but around here that's sometimes wishful thinking.