06/09/2004 11:00PM

Foster the cure for what ails

Midway Road, Southern Image (above), and Peace Rules top an outstanding field set to run in the Grade 1, $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap on a blockbuster card Saturday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Suffering for a week from a Smarty Jones hangover, racing fans are still scraping themselves up off the floor and asking where they should turn for solace. The answer is elusive - although many will simply throw themselves right back into a familiar routine, one that revolves around betting on racehorses.

Fortunately, the return to betting-on-horses normalcy leads to a grand card on Saturday at Churchill Downs. There, six stakes races worth more than $1.85 million await horsemen and fans, and if ever there was a tonic for horseplayers in need of a boost, it's high-class competition with seemingly endless opportunity for making a little cash.

The focus of the card is the , a Grade 1 race that in recent years has evolved into a critical middle-distance test among the elite of the North American older-horse division. This year is no different: Southern Image and Peace Rules, two of the hottest handicap prospects around, are among a field of six in the 23rd running of the $750,000 race.

Southern Image, trained by Mike Machowsky, is owned by a California-based syndicate composed of five men, all of whom will be here Saturday. A 4-year-old Florida-bred colt, Southern Image will be attempting to win a Grade 1 race for the fourth time in five starts, having already taken the Malibu, Santa Anita Handicap, and Pimlico Special in the last six months. Gifted with highly effective tactical range, Southern Image will be ridden once again by Victor Espinoza in the 1 1/8-mile Foster.

"I've really looked into how the race might set up and feel good about it," said Machowsky. "We know how tough the race is, but we're going in with confidence in our horse."

Peace Rules, owned by Edmund Gann and trained by Bobby Frankel, enters off a 10-week layoff, having dominated the Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap following a gutsy triumph in the New Orleans Handicap five weeks beforehand. Jerry Bailey, who won the Foster in 1999 on Victory Gallop and in 2002 aboard Street Cry, once again will ride Peace Rules.

Besides the two favorites, the Foster also attracted two horses, Midway Road and Perfect Drift, either of whom would jump into the highest echelon of the division if he were to pull off what would amount to a minor upset.

Midway Road, owned by Will Farish and trained by Neil Howard, most recently was second, beaten 1 1/4 lengths, by Southern Image in the May 14 Pimlico Special. In his previous race, Midway Road won the Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland with a 123 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest for any horse in North America this year.

Perfect Drift, the defending Foster champion, will be making his third start off a layoff. "He ran huge off the same schedule last year," said trainer Murray Johnson. "It looks like he's ready for another big one."

Two locally based longshot runners, Best Minister and Colonial Colony, round out the Foster field.

The Foster is the ninth of 12 races here Saturday, and it serves as the anchor leg of a pick four with a guaranteed pool of $250,000.

The Foster and the preceding race, the $400,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap, will be televised live on the "NTRA Super Saturday" series on ESPN. The two-hour show begins at 4 p.m. Eastern, and will consist of five graded races from four different tracks. Post time for the Foster is 5:13 p.m.

Also set for Saturday is the official presentation of the engraved Kentucky Derby trophy, with Smarty Jone

The field

Stephen Foster Handicap
Purse: $750,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

1Perfect DriftP. Day1199-2
2Peace RulesJ. Bailey1217-2
3Southern ImageV. Espinoza1226-5
4Midway RoadR. Albarado1165-2
5Best MinisterB. Blanc11215-1
6Colonial ColonyR. Bejarano11130-1

* Odds by Steve Klein
* Television: Saturday, 4-6 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN