06/09/2004 12:00AM

Foster has cream of the crop


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It has become a destination for the very best in recent years, from Silver Charm and Awesome Again to Street Cry and Mineshaft. This year holds fast to that pattern: the Grade 1 got another stellar field for its 23rd running Saturday, with four of the top older horses in training in a field of six.

Southern Image, a winner in all but one of his seven career starts, and Peace Rules, a winner of over $2.7 million, are the likely favorites in the $750,000 Foster Handicap, for which entries were drawn Wednesday at Churchill Downs. The field also includes Perfect Drift, an earner of more than $2.2 million, and Midway Road, who recently posted a 123 Beyer Speed Figure, giving the Foster its usual potent combination of class and depth.

"It looks like a very tough race again," said jockey Pat Day, who last year deftly guided Perfect Drift to an upset over Mineshaft, the eventual Horse of the Year. "It usually is."

The late-running Perfect Drift drew the rail in a 1 1/8-mile race that should unfold in interesting fashion. The other three favorites all have excellent early speed, meaning rider tactics should come into play at some crucial point.

"That's something I'm sure we've all thought about," said Neil Howard, trainer of Midway Road. "With all the speed in there, hopefully we'll have something left for the end."

Rounding out the Foster field are a pair of local runners, Best Minister and Colonial Colony.

The Foster is carded as the ninth of 12 Saturday races and 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 debut telecast of 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.

Churchill is also offering four other stakes on a blockbuster program that has become easily the most noteworthy of the post-Kentucky Derby segment of Churchill's annual spring meet.

The annual presentation of the Derby trophy also is set for Saturday, with owners Roy and Patricia Chapman and trainer John Servis scheduled to be on hand to accept on behalf of Smarty Jones.

The Saturday weather forecast calls for a high of 88 and possible thundershowers.