04/27/2004 11:00PM

Perfect Drift returns to main track in Alysheba


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Perfect Drift won the biggest race at Churchill Downs for older horses last year when he upset the eventual Horse of the Year, Mineshaft, in the Stephen Foster Handicap. He will prep for this year's Stephen Foster on Friday in the $100,000 Alysheba Stakes, which also lured the 2002 Belmont Stakes winner, Sarava, and the tough Spanish Empire.

The Alysheba is new to the stakes calendar this year, and horsemen responded. Eleven horses were entered in the 1 1/16-mile race, part of the stakes-filled Kentucky Oaks undercard.

Perfect Drift, now age 5, has been guided to a productive career by trainer Murray Johnson. As he did last year, Johnson gave Perfect Drift a lengthy layoff following the Breeders' Cup Classic, then brought him back nearly six months later in a grass race at Keeneland.

Perfect Drift finished eighth in the Maker's Mark Mile on April 9, but the layoff, a wide trip, and hard ground that produced a course record of 1:33.54 all compromised Perfect Drift's chances, Johnson said.

"Off his training, there was no way he could win when they run 1:33 and 2," Johnson said after the race.

Perfect Drift now switches back to the main track. He has never finished out of the money in three starts on Churchill's main track. Under the conditions of the race, he was favorably weighted, with just 114 pounds, six fewer than Spanish Empire.

Spanish Empire won stakes races at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park earlier this year, but found himself overmatched against the likes of Peace Rules in the New Orleans Handicap. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, believes the Alysheba is the appropriate spot for his colt.

"He didn't want anything to do with Peace Rules in the New Orleans Handicap," Asmussen said. "I was happy to see him bounce back and run well last time. I don't want to meet Perfect Drift at his best, but it would be hard to imagine him at his best yet. This is all about placement. We're just trying to win a race."

Sarava has raced just three times since his Belmont victory, and has yet to finish in the money.