09/25/2003 11:00PM

It's Perfect Drift vs. Tenpins

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EQUI-PHOTO
Tenpins wins the Iselin at Monmouth. If he wins the Gold Cup, he may run in the BC Classic.

CHICAGO - The leaves have started turning, the nights have gotten chilly, and horse trailers have been rumbling down the expressway from Arlington Heights to Stickney the last two weeks. Chicago racing moves from Arlington Park to Hawthorne Race Course on Sunday, but there is no easing into a fall-winter meet that runs through Jan. 3, 2004. The opening-day program features the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup, with a purse bumped from $500,000 to $750,000 and a six-horse field that boils down to a marquee match race between Perfect Drift and Tenpins.

"I know it's unusual to start out with your biggest race, but we wanted to keep this race four weeks out from the Breeders' Cup," said Hawthorne director of operations Thomas Carey III. "I'm curious about how it will play out."

Day-to-day racing here will bear little resemblance to the Gold Cup. And Hawthorne, which sits in a heavily industrialized corridor of southwest Chicago, takes its lumps for the gritty environment. But the track has carved a nice niche in the winter market. Field size during last year's meet swelled to 9.1 horses per race, and the stable area, with its 2,050 stalls, is overflowing again now.

"There's no question people want big fields," Carey said. "We've made an effort to write races that will attract them."

Hawthorne was lucky to get six in the Gold Cup, and on paper, San Pedro, Aeneas, No Comprende, and Scooter Roach are battling for third money. This race should come down to Perfect Drift, who runs back two weeks after beating Congaree in the Kentucky Cup Classic, and Tenpins, who is unbeaten in two starts this year.

Perfect Drift, third last year in the Kentucky Derby, has emerged as one of the best horses in the country this season. He has won all three of his starts on dirt, beating Mineshaft in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster in June and Congaree two weeks ago in the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park. But his connections, owner William Reed and trainer Murray Johnson, insist Perfect Drift will not run in the Breeders' Cup Classic next month. Instead, he returns on short rest Sunday, regular rider Pat Day aboard, and will probably run back in the Clark Handicap at Churchill.

Johnson, who plotted this schedule some time ago, doesn't worry about the brief break between Perfect Drift's starts. "When he beat Congaree, Pat said he never gave the horse any encouragement," Johnson said. "He did it all himself. It's not like we've been asking or telling this horse to do things. He just does them on his own."

Perfect Drift and Day have the outside post in the Gold Cup, while Tenpins and Robby Albarado may wind up on the lead from post 2.

Tenpins battled a bruised foot earlier this year, but has been on schedule since late this spring and enters the Gold Cup in peak condition, according to trainer Don Winfree.

"Everything's been great with this horse so far," Winfree said. "He had a great work the other day. If we can beat Perfect Drift, we'll go to the Breeders' Cup."