10/22/2003 11:00PM

Johnson's roller-coaster ride

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Murray Johnson says that Perfect Drift is ready for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Now let's see if the Breeders' Cup is ready for Murray Johnson.

In a year full of pragmatic iconoclasts like Bobby Frankel and Barclay Tagg, Johnson has emerged as the refreshing guy who just doesn't give a hoot what other people think of his horse, his training, or where he'll be running next.

Earlier this year, Johnson found himself in the awkward position of defending Perfect Drift's victory in the Stephen Foster Handicap when everyone seemed to explain away the result as a bad ride by Robby Albarado aboard runner-up Mineshaft. Johnson thought, quite understandably, that Perfect Drift's performance spoke for itself.

Later on, Johnson took flak for his decision to shift Perfect Drift to the turf for the Arlington Million in the fervent hope that an international campaign might follow. When that failed, the trainer came to further public grief for his initial decision, along with owner William Reed, to pass the Breeders' Cup and aim their runner elsewhere. Then, when they decided to run, Johnson took the opportunity to criticize the increase in Breeders' Cup entry fees.

Through it all, the 43-year-old Johnson has maintained the glowing good humor of a fellow who is having the time of his life, finally making a mark in the business he loves, and keeping his stable solvent in the process. When he brings Perfect Drift over for the $4 million Classic on Saturday, he will be cautiously confident and rightfully proud that he has come to such a moment. He will also feel right at home.

At one time or another, Johnson has done time in Ireland, California, Kentucky, New York, and any number of outposts in his native Australia, where his family is descended from the noted racing pioneer William Samuel Cox, whose name lives on in the famed W.S. Cox Plate run at Moonee Valley. Home, in Johnson's world, is where the horse is.

When Johnson considered his return to Los Angeles with Perfect Drift, he allowed himself a rush of pleasant memories, mostly associated with his work as assistant to John Gosden.

"I had a great time," Johnson said Wednesday as he prepared to send Perfect Drift to Santa Anita from his base at the Trackside training center in Louisville, Ky. "John had a great operation, and I had a chance to be around some great horses."

"Great" sounds grand coming wrapped in an Aussie accent, but Johnson was not exaggerating. While running Gosden's "offtrack" stables - which means Hollywood Park during the Santa Anita meet and vice versa - Johnson had his hands on a whole load of talent.

There was Sabona, who finished second in the 1989 Breeders' Cup Mile. There was Zoffany, a winner of more than $1.2 million on the California turf. The filly Annoconnor ended up a winner of several major stakes. La Coumia defeated champion Estrapade twice. And for a memorable period of time, the international star Triptych was in Johnson's care under the Gosden banner.

"There's no better job than assistant trainer for a big outfit like that," Johnson said. "It's as close to being a pure trainer as you can get. You don't have all the other concerns that the head trainer must deal with - the accounts, the owners, the acquisition of fresh horses. You just train."

In the late 1980's, as Gosden neared the end of his American sojourn and prepared to return to England, he gave his assistants more and more autonomy. He also made it known to his patrons just how much faith he had in both Johnson and his other assistant at the time, Rick Mettee.

"John was hoping that his owners would support us after he left," Johnson said. "He was disappointed when it didn't really happen. I applied for the assistant positions with Bill Shoemaker and then Charlie Whittingham, but had no luck. So I decided to go on my own. A little premature, as it turned out."

Johnson struck quickly with Green Alligator, winner of the 1991 California Derby and fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Between Green Alligator and Perfect Drift, however, came a decade in which Johnson describes his fortunes as a "roller-coaster ride" with a series of "merry-go-round owners" who were in the barn for "one turn, then they got off at the next horse."

Johnson also relocated to Kentucky.

"I left California because of soundness issues," Johnson said. "Between the surfaces and the style of racing, every time you work a horse or run a horse, you're not sure he'll be in the barn the next week. Since I've been in Kentucky, I've been able to keep horses around longer. I've got 9-year-olds in the barn I've trained since they were 2."

Since Perfect Drift is a gelding, Johnson hopes he'll be one of those productive 9-year-olds some day. That is why he says no single race ever will be worth risking the longevity of Perfect Drift's career. Still, a victory on Saturday could mean a potential boost to the trainer's own career path, although Johnson, ever the realist, is skeptical.

"If Perfect Drift should happen to win on Saturday, I can promise you one thing," Johnson said. "On Sunday, I'll be much better known in Australia than I will be here in America."