Updated on 09/17/2011 11:59AM

Getting it done by slim margins

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Perfect Drift, with Pat Day riding, wins the Stephen Foster by a head. Saturday, in the Washington Park, he can prove that was no fluke.

CHICAGO - Dull pain sometimes ripples through Murray Johnson's hips and knees. Walking across Arlington Park's overheated apron last week, his Australian outback-style hat perched above thick-lensed glasses, some powerful force pushed him unwaveringly, jerkily forward.

"I have aches and pains. Other people notice them more than I do," Johnson said. "I should get them looked at."

He may have neither the inclination nor the time. There's a 55-acre farm to run and, at the Trackside training center in Louisville, a string of horses to train. One is Perfect Drift, who runs here Saturday in the Washington Park Handicap.

His race will be scrutinized. On June 14 at Churchill Downs, Perfect Drift beat Mineshaft, the darling of the handicap division, in the . The consensus view pegs the race as a fluke, the product of a mistimed ride by Mineshaft's jockey and Perfect Drift's eight-pound weight break.

Perfect Drift's camp sees things differently. Perfect Drift, they remind people, finished third in the 2002 Kentucky Derby. He has displayed speed and class since day one, and his pedigree is geared toward success at age 4 and up.

"Our rider, Pat Day, said it took Drift about three strides at the top of the stretch to catch Mineshaft," said Perfect Drift's owner, Dr. William Reed. Perfect Drift won by only a head, but his connections feel the outcome was never in doubt. "We've got to come back and have a similar sort of race in the near future," Reed said.

Before the Foster, uncertainty obscured Johnson's future - a persistent theme.

"Perfect Drift winning that race literally means I can continue on," said Johnson, who is 43. "I have a farm, a house, a mortgage. So many times, you come to the edge of bust. My experience is when you win a big race, it gets you back to square one."

As a young man, Johnson left home in Australia ("It was pigs and chickens, and I wasn't that interested") for a farm management course at the Irish National Stud.

"I loved Ireland, but to stay drunk two or three nights a week, which is what I wanted to do at that time, you needed to make more money than I was making," he said.

Johnson had socked away $2,000 when he left Australia. He came to the Unites States from Ireland with $1,500. He worked at horse farms, switched to exercise riding and wound up galloping horses for a young Shug McGaughey. He went to work as a glorified groom with the powerful California stable of John Gosden, moving up to assistant trainer and eventually out on his own. Six years ago, still trudging ahead, he bought a farm.

"I have the illness of wanting to race and breed racehorses," Johnson said.

Breeding to race is Dr. Reed's ideal. A cardiac surgeon in Kansas City, Reed became a horse owner in 1990 and met Johnson at a sale two years later. Now, when Reed goes to sales it's only to look. Perfect Drift is a homebred, and Reed breeds strictly to race (like all Reed's colts, Perfect Drift was gelded early). The horses are raised and broken at his farm near Kansas City.

"We're pretty attached to these horses," Reed said. "It's not something we're trying to do to make money. Racing is a good business for that."

His wry joke says volumes: Reed can self-reflect. He can listen to his trainer's ideas. "Dr. Reed doesn't let his ego control things," Johnson said. "He loses well."

Johnson and Reed are different types, which doesn't matter at all. Said Reed, "We've had our little disagreements over the years. I'm a pretty compulsive person. He's a little more free than I am. He's a good horseman, and we like him well."

Johnson, divorced with two adolescent children, and long past his drinking days, has strong opinions, his views unaffected by convention. He's no fan of commercial breeding practices, and also questions institutions as entrenched as the Breeders' Cup. Reed paid $80,000 to run Perfect Drift in the Breeders' Cup Classic last season, a fee Johnson finds exorbitant. "The horse got hit out of the gate and never had a chance," he said. Johnson would rather send Perfect Drift to races in the Far East or even Australia than put up the money for this year's Breeders' Cup Classic.

"Murray tends to dream - a lot," Reed said. "On the other hand, if you don't dream or enjoy it, then you've missed the boat."

"It's Murray's way or no way," said the Irish jockey Joe Deegan, who breezes Perfect Drift and often galloped him last season. "He can get hot. I've seen Murray get pretty fired up around people. But, if I think somebody's doing things the right way, I don't let it bother me. Murray, he's very in tune with this horse and he takes his time. That's hard to do when you haven't had that many major successes. He hasn't let all the bull get to him."

Johnson shifts credit to his horse. "I think I know what I'm doing," he said. "But I do the same thing with every horse in my barn, believe me, and not one can run as fast as Perfect Drift. When you get a fast one, you keep them happy and healthy."

"Perfect Drift has such incredible natural speed," Johnson said. "During the summer when he was 2, before he bucked shins, he worked three-eighths in 34 and 4. I said to my rider, 'What are you doing, you idiot?' He told me, 'I promise you, this horse was just galloping.' "

Johnson said Perfect Drift outworked hot 2-year-olds Take Charge Lady and Repent that summer, but his buzz was muted because Johnson stables at Trackside, away from the Churchill Downs limelight.

"This horse, it's phenomenal how fast he can get around that little track," Johnson said. "His strength is incredible. When he pushes on you with his head, you'll go flying across the shed row."

"He's an athlete, you know," said Deegan. "When you watch this horse, you think, well, he's just galloping, but he's going 12, 12, 12 [seconds] for every eighth."

Perfect Drift flopped twice last year, in the Belmont and the Breeders' Cup, and he does have one lingering issue: the geese that frequent his training grounds. "He sees everything on the track, and he can be a little spooky," Deegan said.

Waterfowl aside, Perfect Drift's pattern is positive. Johnson brings horses along slowly, and Perfect Drift was gearing up for the meat of his season in two turf races this spring. If the plan works, the Foster will seem less like a fluke than one piece in an ambitious campaign, which could move back to grass next month in the Arlington Million.

But do not expect a blowout win Saturday at Arlington - Perfect Drift is the kind of horse who gears down once he has taken the lead, and not since early in his career has Perfect Drift won by more than a length.

The way he runs resembles what Johnson has done for years - keep moving forward until you get someplace good.