01/18/2002 1:00AM

Perfect Drift could send Johnson to Derby again

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Surely the most notable performance in nearly two live months of racing at Turfway Park came Jan. 5, when Perfect Drift drew off to win the Turfway Prevue by an impressive four lengths.

As a trainer whose only Kentucky Derby starter, Green Alligator, finished a respectable fourth in the 1991 running, Murray Johnson believes he truly may have a chance to make a second trip to the Derby. Perfect Drift, a Dynaformer colt bred and owned by Dr. William Reed, "has the natural talent and is a big, strong horse," said Johnson. "He has the breeding. There's no reason why he can't become a really good horse."

Johnson readily acknowledges that the Trackside training annex [formerly Sports Spectrum] in Louisville, where he is based with a medium-sized stable, is hardly a commonly used facility for a Derby hopeful. But Johnson is content to train at Trackside and run the colt through the series of 3-year-old stakes at Turfway in Florence, Ky., starting with the $50,000 WEBN Frog Stakes [formerly the Presidents] next Saturday. "If the weather turns on us, we'll look at something else, probably at Aqueduct," said Johnson. "But we're just planning on staying here."

Johnson said Reed has been offered upward of $1 million for Perfect Drift, but "he's in a position where he doesn't need the money." Reed, a prominent heart surgeon in Kansas City, Mo., has been Johnson's primary client for about eight years. "He's in the game to get a good horse," said Johnson. "We're going to ride it out with this one."

Johnson added that he is not "pushing" Perfect Drift toward an unrealistic goal. "If he gets a hiccup, we'll stop on him and start looking at the grass for him," he said.

The WEBN precedes the March 2 John Battaglia Memorial and the track's marquee race, the $600,000 Lane's End Spiral Stakes on March 23.

A contest for losers

Turfway is considering a contest called "Pick the Losers" for every Sunday in February, but track officials first must get approval from the Kentucky Racing Commission.

The premise of the contest is to pick a horse in all 10 races that does not finish in the top three. Turfway and United Tote would offer a weekly prize of $1,000 plus all entry fees of $10 apiece. If no one picks all 10 races correctly, the pool carries over to the next Sunday.

There could be an inherent danger in fostering a "loser" mentality. If the jackpot was sufficiently large, someone conceivably could influence a horse not to run well in order to win the contest. And even if nothing illegal occurred, the possibility of a negative perception arising exists.

Commission executive director Bernie Hettel said Friday that he asked Turfway president Bob Elliston "maybe to give this a mental push-up. They are going to show me how they want to run the contest. We'll go through it all and determine how to proceed."

Racing schedule altered

Turfway has implemented a new schedule that trims weeknight racing while adding extra races to Saturday cards. The schedule is as follows: nine races on Wednesday and Thursday, 10 races on Friday and Sunday, and 12 races on Saturday.

The total of 50 races per week remains the same as when all programs consisted of 10 races. The new schedule obviously attempts to capitalize on what is always the day for business - Saturday.

In a related note, Turfway does not plan to make up the 2 1/2 programs it lost to weather Jan. 9-11, said track spokeswoman Jennifer Haas.

* Turfway racing officials have booked upcoming trips to solicit nominations to the Spiral. Racing secretary Rick Leigh will travel to south Florida, assistant racing secretary Ben Huffman will go to Louisiana, and stakes coordinator Randy Wehrman tentatively is set to go to Southern California.

* Turfway has announced a 5 percent across-the-board raise in purses, effective Friday.