10/07/2003 11:00PM

Perfect Drift gets green light

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Four Footed Fotos
Perfect Drift, winning the Hawthorne Gold Cup, will get a chance to solidify his Horse of the Year credentials in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

A month ago he was out. No ifs, ands, or buts. Two weeks ago, he was on the fence. A week ago, he put one leg over the fence. And on Wednesday, trainer Murray Johnson took a great leap forward, saying that his top older horse Perfect Drift would indeed run in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita.

The inclusion of Perfect Drift gives the Classic a much-needed boost. It had been battered by defections in recent weeks, including Candy Ride, Empire Maker, Funny Cide, and Mineshaft, the leading contender for Horse of the Year.

Perfect Drift offers a strong case for Horse of the Year, too, especially should he win the Classic. A victory in the $4 million race would conclude a season in which he already has captured the Stephen Foster Handicap, Washington Park Handicap, Kentucky Cup Classic, and Hawthorne Gold Cup. Most significantly, Perfect Drift defeated Mineshaft in their lone head-to-head meeting, in the Stephen Foster, which Perfect Drift won by a head while in receipt of eight pounds (115-123) from Mineshaft.

Johnson said he had warmed to the idea of running in the Classic over the past two weeks because of how well Perfect Drift has performed in his last two starts, and how well he has come out of those races.

"He's doing really well," Johnson said Wednesday from Kentucky, where Perfect Drift is based. "He'll have works the next two Saturdays, and during the week he'll have a strong gallop. Tuesday he galloped a strong mile in 1:48."

The only glitch along the way is that Perfect Drift will need a new rider for the Classic, because jockey Pat Day already has committed to ride Travers Stakes winner Ten Most Wanted, whom Day also regularly rides.

"Everything's looking good," Johnson said. "The horse is fine. We've still got to sort out the rider situation, but everything's going to plan, so we're going to come."

Johnson said he was going to be patient in terms of selecting a jockey. Several top riders already have commitments, but if a prominent horse for the Classic were to drop out over the next week, the jockey assigned to that horse would then be available.

To be sure, there will no shortage of applicants. "Just about every top rider or their agent has called," Johnson said.

The Classic often decides Horse of the Year, but it was in danger of becoming nearly irrelevant in that regard this year because of the defections of so many prominent candidates. It spoke specifically to a general trend for this year's Breeders' Cup, that of the apparent reluctance of some owners and trainers based in the East and Midwest to send their horses to California.

"We probably should wait until pre-entries next week, but I think if there is any reticence, it would be idiosyncratic to this year or the particular horses," D.G. Van Clief, the president of Breeders' Cup Ltd., said Wednesday from Lexington, Ky. "We've had five events in California, and we've not noticed any particular reticence, concern, or refusal from Eastern owners and trainers to go."

Van Clief acknowledged, however, an undercurrent of resentment over a hike in Breeders' Cup entry fees for this year. Horses eligible to the Breeders' Cup in the past had paid 2 percent of a race's purse to both enter and start. This year, the fee is 3 percent, a 50-percent increase. For a race like the $4 million Classic, that means the fees have increased from $80,000 to $120,000. That had been cited by both Johnson, and Perfect Drift's owner, Dr. William Reed, as a reason to consider bypassing the Breeders' Cup.

"We didn't just do this arbitrarily," said Van Clief, who said he anticipated some negative reaction. "We touched base with a number of owners and trainers, and found little resistance to a fee increase, since it's going to be put back into purses."

Some of the money, Van Clief said, is going to increases in Breeders' Cup race purses beginning this year, and some is going toward increases in Breeders' Cup-supplemented stakes races around the country.

"The dollars are destined to go back onto the track in terms of purses," Van Clief said.

In other Classic developments:

* Congaree, who finished second to Perfect Drift in the Kentucky Cup Classic, flew through a seven-furlong workout in 1:22.54 with exercise rider Dana Barnes a half-hour before Wednesday's first race at Santa Anita. Bob Baffert, Congaree's trainer, said he wanted to work Congaree in the afternoon because he thought the track would be more tiring than in the morning. "He'll get more out of it," Baffert said.

* Bowman's Band, who won last week's Meadowlands Cup, is likely to come to California for the Classic, trainer Allen Jerkens said.

* Volponi, third in the Meadowlands Cup, will defend his title in the Classic. He has not won since that victory last year. "He's been a hard-luck Charlie all year," said his trainer and co-owner, Phil Johnson. "We're digging out the money for the pre-entry fee. It's in cans buried in the backyard, but I can't find my map."

* Perfect Drift being in likely means Aeneas, who finished third to Perfect Drift in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, is out. "I don't want to run against him again," said Marty Wolfson, who trains Aeneas. "I think he's the best horse currently racing."

* Soto, second to Ten Most Wanted in the Super Derby, is sidelined with a slight ligament tear in his left front leg, it was announced Wednesday.

- additional reporting by David Grening