04/24/2002 11:00PM

Johnson doing it his way

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Many are marching on the 128th Kentucky Derby, now just a week away, but few are providing their own music to the extent of Murray Johnson, a 42-year-old Australian who trains the Spiral winner, Perfect Drift, for Stonecrest Farm.

Today's horsemen, for the most part, insist on a prep race two or three weeks before to their goal. Perfect Drift, by design, will run for the roses off an interval of six weeks.

Perfect Drift, by Dynaformer out of a Naskra mare, is a stone closer. All indications point to a full Derby field of 20. A horse coming from far back in a large field needs considerable luck to get through. But Johnson, delighted with the way the bay gelding is coming to his race, wouldn't have it any other way.

Perfect Drift is owned by a distinguished heart surgeon from Kansas City, Dr. William Reed, who came into racing in 1990 and has been enhancing his 100-acre farm in Kansas City with spectacular barns. Several years ago, he sent Johnson and some pedigree experts to the Keeneland sales with a budget of $250,000 to help fill the barns. They purchased four head for a total of $110,000, and one of the acquisitions was the mare Nice Gal, in foal to Salt Lake.

Nice Gal, a stakes winner of almost $170,000, made 44 starts, won 12 races, and was all hickory when it came to racing. She produced a stakes-placed filly named Gypsy, a Salt Lake colt named Nice n' Salty who earned almost $200,000, and to the cover of Dynaformer - a son of the Epsom Derby winner Roberto - got an attractive colt, Perfect Drift.

Perfect Drift bucked shins at 2, then ran two good races in late fall, at Churchill Downs and Turfway Park, employing his natural speed. But Johnson, seeing some quality in his charge, taught him to reserve his speed until asked.

He began winning races from off the pace and showed the consistency that horsemen seek. In six starts, he has three wins and three seconds.

He was asked to go 1 1/8 miles for the first time in the Spiral at Turfway in late March, and with the veteran Eddie Delahoussaye in the irons, changed course during the race and won with an eye-catching finish. Johnson mapped out a game plan to bring Perfect Drift to the Kentucky Derby with no prep race in the final six weeks, a feat last accomplished by Hugh Fontaine with Needles in 1956.

"He couldn't be doing better," Johnson said. "He is getting the conditioning he needs, but he will also run in the Derby as a relatively fresh horse. As far as the big field is concerned, he has the ability to change course that should serve him well, and he has the pilot to do it. Delahoussaye rode two Kentucky Derby winners and is a master at keeping out of harm's way. He is riding in particularly good form these days and we think we have a good team."

Johnson has some Derby experience he has been able to put to use. He saddled Anderson Fowler's Green Alligator, who finished a respectable fourth in 1991.

During the course of that Derby week, Johnson observed a major member of the field undergo a traumatic experience in his stall on Derby eve, when a college group held an all-night party on Longfield Avenue, which parallels the Churchill Downs backstretch. The unfortunate horse paced his stall and because he came so close, Johnson figures it had to cost him something.

So Johnson is stabled at the Churchill Downs annex, the Trackside facility a few miles away just off the Watterson Expressway. He notes that only 500 horses train at Trackside, compared with 1,300 at Churchill Downs, and that the atmosphere is always tranquil. Perfect Drift is not likely to be one of the Derby favorites but he could be one of the horses battling for the prize of prizes when the field thunders through the long stretch next weekend.