08/16/2006 12:00AM

'Perfect' in almost every way

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Perfect Drift at Del Mar on Wednesday. He has been second in the last two runnings of the Pacific Classic and will try again at age 7 on Sunday.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The Tin Man. Perfect Drift. Lava Man. Their names conjure themes of class, durability, and speed, long held as hallmark characteristics of the Thoroughbred breed. Their owners are to be envied, their caretakers admired, and their fans are rarely disappointed. Amazing is what they are, and there's not a surviving testicle among 'em.

The mixed message sent by a testosterone-dominated culture holds that a racehorse is not a whole horse unless he can spread his seed. The word used, in the jargon of the industry, is "entire."

"Gelding is a simple procedure," said Dr. Jack Robbins, the man who neutered Native Diver, Ancient Title, and Bardstown, among others. "It's a shame they don't do more of it."

At the same time, the greatest geldings are forgiven their lack of reproductive organs with such consoling platitudes as, "Can you imagine what he'd be like if he was still a colt?" or "Good thing we cut him or he'd be a real handful."

Of course, there may be something to this. The aggressive Lava Man, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and the last two Hollywood Gold Cups, spends most of his life in a three-point stance and goes to the track each day in full pads (ring bit, shadow roll, blinkers) for even the most ordinary jog.

Perfect Drift, a winner of $4.5 million, charges his webbing, snarls at strangers, and has been spending the last few mornings trying to chew his way through the thin wooden panel at the back of his stall in one of Del Mar's newly built warehouse barns.

You've got to love these guys, mostly because they keep coming back for more. On Sunday at Del Mar, Lava Man and Perfect Drift will be at it again, joining Giacomo, Magnum, and Good Reward in what is shaping up as an unpredictable 16th running of $1 million Pacific Classic, at 1 1/4 miles on the main track.

Two years ago, Perfect Drift finished second in the Classic to Pleasantly Perfect and was beaten only a length - by the horse who had won both the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup.

Last year, at the robust age of 6, Perfect Drift was just caught in the last 50 yards by Borrego, who went on to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Of more significance was the fact that Lava Man ran third, beaten a neck by Perfect Drift. For the record, all Pacific Classic business is conducted under level weights.

Even with Lava Man's perfect 5-for-5 season in progress, trainer Murray Johnson had no reservations about bringing Perfect Drift out West once again, this time off a second in the Washington Park Handicap.

"When we beat him last year, he'd just won the Hollywood Gold Cup by eight lengths," Johnson noted. His point was clear - this year Lava Man's Gold Cup margin was a nose, over a horse who's not even running in the Classic.

Anyway, there's nothing Perfect Drift likes more than a cross-country trip with a few new sights and sounds. He was on the muscle as usual Wednesday morning, when Johnson turned him loose for his first light exercise since shipping in two days before, and then later turned heads as he dragged Johnson around the common tow-ring.

"Hey, don't be cutting in on a multiple major stakes winner with that horse," said a mischievous Dan Hendricks, who will start Top This and That in the Classic. Stable star Brother Derek was on the ring, cooling out from a gallop.

" 'That horse' was third in the Kentucky Derby," Johnson countered as Perfect Drift pulled. "Where did yours finish."

"At least mine won a derby," Hendricks shot back. "The Santa Anita Derby."

"So did this bloke," Johnson replied. "The Indiana Derby."

Now 7, Perfect Drift has a stripped-down gladiatorial look to him, a no-frills, blood bay with black points, and a way of going that has made Johnson swoon ever since that morning, nearly five years ago, when the 2-year-old Perfect Drift tied in with a couple of workers from another barn.

"His action was good from the beginning," Johnson said, "back before he even started when he was outworking Repent and Take Charge Lady."

It is his nearly flawless action, coupled with regular winter vacations at the Kansas farm of his owner, Dr. William Reed, that has kept Perfect Drift healthier than most top horses with 39 starts at 13 different tracks. According to Johnson, Perfect Drift's only serious issue with soundness came after his fourth-place finish over a packed, sloppy track in the 2005 Hawthorne Gold Cup, his final race before his fourth straight appearance in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"That's what made his Breeders' Cup so remarkable," Johnson said, referring to Perfect Drift's third to Saint Liam at Belmont. "He was so jarred up after the Hawthorne race that we basically had to walk him for three weeks."

By now, Johnson pretty much charts the pages of his life by Perfect Drift.

"I've got a picture of my youngest daughter, Katie, in the winner's circle with Perfect Drift when she was just a little thing," Johnson said. "Now she's coming on 15 and playing varsity volleyball.

"The goal is to win a Grade 1 stakes with him at age 10," Johnson added, not kidding at all. "The way he's going, I don't see why he can't do it."