09/20/2005 12:00AM

Gold Cup cast shapes up

Four-Footed Fotos
Last year's Gold Cup winner Freefourinternet will be back to defend his title on Saturday.

CHICAGO - The horse that upset him last year is coming back, but that might be one of Perfect Drift's lesser concerns Saturday in the $750,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup.

Trainer Murray Johnson penciled Sept. 24 at Hawthorne Race Course into his date book shortly after Perfect Drift ran a solid second Aug. 21 in the . With three workouts at the Churchill Downs training center and a fresh horse ready for the fall, Johnson's plans seem to have smoothly whirred along. Still, Perfect Drift could have something like nine opponents here Saturday when he will be the 121-pound highweight - among them, Freefourinternet, who won the 2004 Gold Cup at odds of 27-1 by outfinishing a 1-2 Perfect Drift.

What would really make the race, however, is an appearance by the California-based Choctaw Nation, who was a close, closing fourth in the Pacific Classic, and finished third in the Dubai World Cup this spring. Owner Robert Bone already has one horse confirmed for the Gold Cup, Desert Boom, and said Monday it was possible that Choctaw Nation could join him.

"Desert Boom is coming for sure, and Choctaw Nation, we're on the fence," said Bone. "I don't like running two in the same race, but Desert Boom goes to the front, and Choctaw Nation comes from behind, so they'd be in different places."

Desert Boom, a one-time mid-level claimer who has earned more than $262,000 this year alone, is based in northern California with the trainer Art Sherman, while Choctaw Nation stables at Santa Anita with Jeff Mullins. Mullins was due back from Argentina on Tuesday night, but Bone has been in regular telephone contact with his trainer.

"He just left it up to me whether to come," Bone said.

One confirmed shipper, who was to have arrived late Monday at Hawthorne, was the East Coast-based Good Reward, most recently eighth in the Arlington Million, a race run over wet turf that Good Reward disliked. While Good Reward has done his best work on turf, he has won on dirt before. He finished fourth behind Rock Hard Ten in the Strub Stakes last winter, and his trainer, Shug McGaughey, believes the Gold Cup's 1 1/4 miles is Good Reward's best distance.

Others considered likely Gold Cup starters are Nkosi Reigns, Fantasticat, and Home of Stars. Among horses that are possible runners are Ascertain, Collateral Damage, Lord of the Game, Mambo Train, and a horse from the Todd Pletcher barn, perhaps Purge.

Hawthorne begins its fall-winter meet Friday. Two other stakes, the Carey Handicap and the Indian Maid Stakes, also are scheduled for Saturday.