08/20/2004 12:00AM

Out on the road with Perfect Drift

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DEL MAR, Calif. - By five o'clock Sunday afternoon, the identity of the 2004 Pacific Classic winner will be known far and wide. There he will stand, basking in the postrace glow of the Del Mar winner's circle, as the descending sun begins to tint the clouds clinging fast to the Pacific horizon.

Will it be Pleasantly Perfect, the favorite and reigning Breeders' Cup champ? His loss in the San Diego Handicap was hard to swallow but easy to forgive, especially with weight, pace, and distance squarely in his favor this time around.

Will it be Choctaw Nation, perfect in his own way, with five races and five wins since he began racing last winter? His San Diego victory was no fluke. Only very good horses run their last 2 1/2 furlongs in less than 30 seconds, and this guy does not know what it feels like to lose.

Or will it be Total Impact, now healthy after all these years and rising to the occasion? For those not impressed with the field he beat in the Hollywood Gold Cup, too bad. He did what he was told, and all he asks in return is another mile and a quarter to prove he can do it again.

If you ask Richard Anderson, he would respectfully choose none of the above. For you see, Anderson's head, heart, body, and soul belong to the racehorse named Perfect Drift.

As a key player in the Murray Johnson stable for the past 10 years, Anderson was in the right place at the right time when Perfect Drift needed a groom. Of course, he needed a groom because, as a rambunctious 3-year-old, he kicked the other guy in the face, splitting his nose and cracking his eye socket.

For more than two years now, the 49-year-old Anderson has been handling Perfect Drift, dodging the occasional kicks, fending off the nips and bites, and thanking his lucky stars that such a fast, generous animal came into his life. Anderson has traveled far and wide with his racehorse - head roadie to a rock star - winning more than $2 million in purses while playing such arenas as Saratoga, Arlington, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Hawthorne, Turfway, Hoosier Park, Prairie Meadows, and Santa Anita.

Anderson's racing pedigree traces to old Miles Park in his native Louisville, Ky., where he walked hots in his teens. He did a different kind of traveling while he was in the Army, serving a big chunk of his 8 1/2 years near the German city of Hamburg, driving jeeps and trucks and suffering through cold northern European winters before returning Stateside and eventually going back to the track.

Now Anderson is at Del Mar, for the first time, and look out Pacific Ocean.

"I'm hoping Murray can take us down there," he said with a grin. "I'll be pretty easy to spot - the black guy in the psychedelic trunks."

On Friday morning, Anderson put down his work long enough to find a spot on the rail near the clubhouse turn as Perfect Drift galloped past under former jockey Mike Bowles.

"Did you see him, how he just floats along?" Anderson said a little while later, after Perfect Drift was back in his stall. "For a big horse, he really hits the ground soft. And did you see his ears? Both of them forward, none of that twitching around. When he gallops good like that, all you need to do is look at his ears."

For the most part, trainers will describe their marquee horses in broad strokes, and that is usually enough to satisfy any curiosity. A top groom like Anderson, however, can peel back the covers and share his side of what amounts to a domestic relationship.

As a result, a visitor will learn that Perfect Drift starts each day with a therapeutic session on a flat platform that emits a magnetic field, that he will shred his hayrack to ribbons out of playful mischief, and that he prefers the softer, longer bristles of an everyday household cleaning brush to the conventional curry equipment found in the typical tack box.

"I spend an awful lot of time with his feet, and I take a lot of pride," Anderson said as he picked them up and painted the soles with a concoction of DMSO. "I know whatever I've been doing lately is working because of the way he ran in New York."

Anderson was talking about the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 7, when Perfect Drift lost a heartbreaker to Roses in May.

"He loved it there," Anderson said. "He'd stare out his stall to the big paddock across the street, and every night he'd listen to the music coming from the restaurant."

Sorry to say, there is no Siro's next door to Perfect Drift's quarters at Del Mar. Truth be told, it actually serves as the sheep barn during the Del Mar Fair. On Friday night, though, there was a concert scheduled in the racetrack plaza, so at least Perfect Drift will be entertained. And Andersen says his horse will love the intimate, amphitheater-style Del Mar paddock come Sunday afternoon.

"He likes the people looking at him, and the cameras flashing on him all day long," Anderson said. "And I'm going to have him looking nice when he goes over. He'll be the star attraction - you can bet on that."