06/08/2004 12:00AM

Going for a home run

Midway Road, shown here with exercise rider Annie Finney, will run in Stephen Foster Handicap, not in New York.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Midway Road will run in the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, trainer Neil Howard said Tuesday, giving the Grade 1 race four of the nation's top handicap horses for its 23rd running Saturday.

Howard and Midway Road's owner, Will Farish, had agonized for weeks over whether to keep Midway Road at home for the Foster or to run instead the same day in the Brooklyn Handicap in New York. In the end, it was the horse's brilliance in his recent training that "may have tipped the scales in favor" of running in the Foster, said Howard.

Three other top horses - Southern Image, Peace Rules, and Perfect Drift - also were expected to be in the lineup when entries for the 1 1/8-mile Foster were drawn Wednesday.

, second to Southern Image in the May 14 Pimlico Special in his last start, "has been doing very, very well" since that race, said Howard. "His weight, his development, just the way he's continued to move forward."

Howard recently said he preferred to avoid another meeting with Southern Image and was "pretty much settled" on going to Belmont Park for the Brooklyn, a Grade 2 race with a $250,000 purse, as the logical alternative.

But after lengthy discussions with Farish and Churchill racing officials, Howard said: "We finally concluded that as good as he's been doing, and since the race will be right here over our home track, that if we're ever going to be successful against Southern Image, maybe now is the right time to take a shot."

Regular jockey Robby Albarado will ride Midway Road in the Foster.

Meanwhile, Southern Image was scheduled to arrive here Tuesday afternoon following a charter flight from Southern California. That same plane then was bound for New York to pick up another load of horses, including Peace Rules, before returning to Louisville late Tuesday night.

Southern Image, a winner of 6 of 7 starts, will be ridden as usual by Victor Espinoza. Southern Image is trained by Mike Machowsky. Jerry Bailey has the mount on Peace Rules, and Pat Day will ride Perfect Drift, the defending Foster champion.

Other prospective starters for the Foster include Olmodavor, Sir Cherokee, Colonial Colony, and Best Minister.

The Foster is one of six stakes (five graded) here Saturday. Live television of the Foster and the second-richest race of the card, the $400,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap, will be provided by ESPN on its new "NTRA Super Saturday" series.