08/17/2003 11:00PM

It's back to dirt for Perfect Drift

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CHICAGO - Perfect Drift's excursion into grass racing is over, at least for now. His eighth-place finish Saturday in the Arlington Million will send Perfect Drift back to dirt racing, and he is likely to make his next start Sept. 28 in the Hawthorne Gold Cup on the opening day of Hawthorne's fall-winter meet.

Perfect Drift came up to the Million having run two powerhouse dirt races, an upset of Mineshaft in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap and a victory in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington. Perfect Drift had begun his season with a pair of turf races, winning an allowance at Keeneland before finishing fourth in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby Day. His trainer, Murray Johnson, chalked that loss up to a poor trip and his belief that Perfect Drift had not yet reached peak fitness. Johnson went into the Million thinking his horse could hold top form on turf but came out far less certain.

"It doesn't change our thinking about him that much, but it could change his schedule," Johnson said. "I think the way he ran resulted from a combination of things. The slow pace didn't help, plus it may have been a little bit of the surface, and he got banged around at some point. He scratched up his hock somehow. We treated it, and he seemed fine. But every time something like that has happened in a race, he hasn't run well."

The $500,000 Gold Cup would give Perfect Drift about six weeks between races and allow him to remain in the Midwest. "We'd rather stay home with the horse as much as we can," Johnson said.

Good effort by Bien Nicole

Bien Nicole went into the Beverly D. Stakes as a nice regional turf mare who had never proven she could compete on a national scale. She can.

Bien Nicole got away with a slow pace in the Beverly D., and she nearly took full advantage of it. Jockey Don Pettinger gave her a perfect front-end ride, and Bien Nicole opened up a lead a furlong from the finish, succumbing only to Heat Haze's relentless rally.

"The only way we could've been happier with her is if she could have been first," said trainer Donnie Von Hemel.

Bien Nicole does not carry a lot of weight, and she doesn't eat voraciously after a race, but Von Hemel said "she still looked bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" on Sunday. "We'll be looking around for a race in a few days."

But Von Hemel isn't itching to go on the road, even if Bien Nicole showed she can compete with the best turf mares in the country. "We did run with them, but do we want to travel and go and meet them on their home court? We'd prefer to stay in the middle of the country with her if we can."

Caucus back in town

Arlington will no doubt experience a post-Million lull, and Wednesday's nine-race program is long on claimers and maidens. The only allowance of the day is the eighth, a first-level race for older fillies and mares at seven furlongs.

The race will see the return to Arlington of Caucus, who looked like a player in the 2-year-old filly division last season when she won a one-mile maiden race by five lengths over Belle of Perintown, who became a stakes winner. But in five starts since then, including three this season, Caucus has undergone more trainer changes (one) than she has won races. Sixth, fifth, and fourth in her last three starts, Caucus will face the softest opposition she has seen this year, but she must deal with the sharp maiden winner If Nine Was Six, who won her last start by four lengths.

Plans for Heat Haze

Heat Haze, the last-to-first winner as the favorite in the Beverly D., will run next in either the Sept. 27 Flower Bowl at Belmont or the Sept. 28 Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita, trainer Bobby Frankel said Monday at Saratoga. Both are Grade 1 races that serve as key preps for Frankel's ultimate objective, the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

Frankel said the scheduling of the final BC prep for Heat Haze will depend partly on what he decides for his three other contenders in the filly-mare turf division: Tates Creek, Megahertz, and Pertusiane.

Matz Grade 1 maiden no more

Trainer Michael Matz, speaking Monday from his Fair Hill, Md., base, was still ecstatic over the rousing victory that Kicken Kris posted in the Secretariat Stakes. The victory was the first in a Grade 1 for Matz.

"That was a pretty good way to break my maiden," said Matz.

Matz said he was especially impressed with the flawless ride that Javier Castellano gave Kicken Kris and the final quarter-mile time for the colt. "He ran the last quarter faster than they did in the Million," he said, referring to a 23.66-second final quarter, compared with 24.52 in the Million.

Matz said he had no particular race in mind for Kicken Kris, owned by Elizabeth Moran's Brushwood Stable. Matz added that he was unsure if he wanted to point the colt to the Breeders' Cup Turf.

"I know he can get 1 1/4 miles, and I know he can get 1 1/2 miles," he said. "But that was a big step up for him Saturday, and it would be an even bigger step up in the Breeders' Cup.

"He came out of the race great. He only drank a half-bucket of water and was hardly blowing at all. I'll talk things over with Mrs. Moran and we'll get something going pretty soon."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee