06/03/2004 11:00PM

Looking for return to a glory day

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The large placard on the outer wall of Barn K at the Trackside training center alludes to a story that reverberated through the racing world last summer. "Trackside, Home of Perfect Drift," the sign begins. "2003 Stephen Foster Grade 1 Winner."

Of the 20 horse races in which Perfect Drift has competed, none has taken the gelding to greater heights than the Foster. He beat Mineshaft that day, and Mineshaft never lost again on his way to a Horse of the Year title and breeding shed. Perfect Drift also would win again, although not in the same spectacular manner. He threw in some fairly ugly losses, too, and in fact, as the field begins coming together at Churchill Downs for the 2004 running of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, the question lingers about whether Perfect Drift is the same horse as when he ruled the handicap division for that one glorious afternoon.

"I think he is," said Murray Johnson, who trains Perfect Drift for breeder-owner William Reed of Stonecrest Farm. "I'm delighted with the way he's coming around."

Yet when Perfect Drift returns Saturday to defend his title in the $750,000 Foster, it will be with the longest losing streak of his career: three races. After wrapping four graded victories around a loss in the Arlington Million, the gelding finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, then got several months off at Stonecrest in Kansas City, Mo. Upon returning to action in April, Perfect Drift ran eighth in the Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland, then second as the favorite in the Alysheba Stakes on the April 30 Kentucky Oaks undercard.

Now comes the Foster, a 1 1/8-mile race that is expected to attract divisional heavy heads Peace Rules and Southern Image. Johnson is very confident Perfect Drift will summon his best effort when he makes the third start of his newest form cycle.

"We're a handicap horse, and we're going to be around a long time," said Johnson. "You want to win at the right time."

This past winter was the second in a row that Reed and Johnson elected to give Perfect Drift an extended amount of time on the farm. "We pull his shoes and let him just be a horse," said Johnson. "He really relaxes there, like he knows as soon as he steps off the van where he is. Once he's back here, he becomes more aggressive right away."

But the rounding back to form takes time. Last year, in his two races before the Foster, Perfect Drift won what Johnson calls "an average allowance" at Keeneland before finishing fourth in the Woodford Reserve. "He ran up to the leaders in the Woodford and got tired," recalled Johnson. "The same thing happened to him in his second start back this year."

Johnson said that Pat Day, the regular rider of Perfect Drift, told him the Alysheba was remarkably similar to the Woodford last year. "Pat is still extremely confident in the horse," said Johnson. "He became a big believer last year when the horse caught up to Mineshaft in just a couple of strides. When he got off the horse the last time, he basically said what I've been saying all along, that he can really tell the horse is going to get better again with more racing."

Johnson said the bottom line with Perfect Drift, who has earned over $2.2 million, is that extending the gelding's career so as to maximize his earning potential will require periodic rests. "You can't have it both ways," he said. "If you want him to have a long career, you have to give him the occasional break and whatever comes with that."

Perfect Drift is one of six to eight older horses expected for the Foster, which has evolved into easily Churchill's top event of the post-Kentucky Derby segment of the annual spring meet. Besides Peace Rules, winner of the New Orleans and Oaklawn handicaps, and Southern Image, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and Pimlico Special, other potential starters include Funny Cide, Midway Road, Congrats, Best Minister, and Sir Cherokee. Weight assignments were to be released over the weekend.

Funny Cide, the 2003 Derby winner, would be racing on just 11 days' rest after finishing fifth in the Met Mile last weekend. "They know they'd be coming back quick, but they're talking seriously to us about coming," said Churchill's racing secretary, Doug Bredar.

The Foster is one of six stakes to be run here Saturday. The others are the $400,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap, $200,000 Jefferson Cup, $200,000 Regret, $200,000 Northern Dancer, and $100,000 Opening Verse.