08/18/2004 11:00PM

Perfect Drift looks due

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Perfect Drift is getting ever closer. He was third this year in the Stephen Foster Handicap, second in the Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap, and a narrow, heartbreaking loser of the Whitney Handicap two weeks ago. He's racing in excellent form, but victory has been elusive.

His last win came when he ran back on just two weeks' rest late last summer, in the Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap. That is one reason why his trainer, Murray Johnson, says he believes Perfect Drift can weather a cross-country trip and capture Sunday's Pacific Classic at Del Mar just 14 days after competing in the Whitney at Saratoga.

Perfect Drift and seven others were entered Wednesday in the Grade 1, $1 million , including the best 1 1/4-mile horse in the world, Pleasantly Perfect.

Pleasantly Perfect, who has won the Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup in the past 10 months, drew post 5, just outside Perfect Drift. Inside those two are El Elogiado, Colonial Colony, and Choctaw Nation, and outside them are Total Impact, Night Patrol, and During.

Perfect Drift came out of the Whitney in good shape, Johnson said.

"We looked around at the schedule and wanted to run him," Johnson said at Del Mar on Thursday morning. "We don't have him around just to train him. He's coming around. Last year, once he came around, he maintained good form, and he did well on a two-week turnaround. He also seems to have gotten better about shipping as he's gotten older. He's never been bad. He's just gotten better. And he can handle different tracks."

Del Mar will be the 11th track at which Perfect Drift has competed. He has been among the leaders of his generation for three seasons. He was third in the Kentucky Derby two years ago after capturing the Lane's End Stakes, and last year he upset Mineshaft, the subsequent Horse of the Year, in the Stephen Foster Handicap. He has won nine times in 23 starts and has earned $2,535,163. On Sunday, he will try to add the Pacific Classic's $600,000 winner's prize.

Under the weight-for-age conditions of the Pacific Classic, all starters carry 124 pounds.

The Pacific Classic will be shown live on ESPN2 in a one-hour telecast beginning at 4 p.m. Pacific time. The Pacific Classic is the eighth race on a 10-race card at Del Mar that begins at 1 p.m.

The field

Pacific Classic
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS
1El ElogiadoK. Desormeaux20-1
2Colonial ColonyR. Bejarano10-1
3Choctaw NationV. Espinoza3-1
4Perfect DriftP. Day7-2
5Pleasantly PerfectJ. Bailey 7-5
6Total ImpactM. Smith8-1
7Night PatrolT. Baze20-1
8DuringC. Nakatani12-1

* All starters carry 124 pounds
* Odds by Michael Hammersly
* Television: Sunday; 7-8 p.m.; ESPN2