06/29/2004 12:00AM

Perfect Drift tops four-day festival

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ALTOONA, Iowa - The Iowa Festival of Racing begins Thursday evening at Prairie Meadows with the $50,000 Prairie Gold Lassie and the $50,000 Prairie Gold Juvenile.

The Festival, which runs through Sunday, closing day of the Thoroughbred meeting here, features two stakes races per day with all but Thursday's races carrying six-figure purses. The highlight of the Festival is Saturday's Grade 3, $300,000 Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Multiple graded stakes winner Perfect Drift, who most recently ran third as the defending champion in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, tops the 1 1/8-mile Cornhusker.

A 5-year-old gelding trained by Murray Johnson, Perfect Drift underwent a myectomy after the Foster to help clear up a breathing problem. Pat Day is expected in from Kentucky to ride. Other leading contenders in the Cornhusker include Crafty Shaw and Sonic West.

Friday night's $125,000 Iowa Oaks, which achieved graded status this year, drew a field of nine, headed by Menifeeque, Native Annie, and Home Court. Native Annie and Menifeeque ran fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico on May 14.

Home Court, by Storm Cat out of the multiple graded-stakes-winning Jewel Princess, suffered her first loss in her third career start last out in an overnight handicap at Arlington Park. She will try two turns for the first time in the 1 1/16-mile Iowa Oaks.

The feature race on Friday is the $250,000 Iowa Derby, in which the Richard Violette-trained Swingforthefences will be favored, based on his runner-up finish in the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont in his last start. J Town, trained by Ken McPeek, is the main danger to Swingforthefences in the 1 1/16-mile Iowa Derby.

In addition to the Cornhusker, Saturday's card will include the $125,000 Iowa Distaff Breeders' Cup, headed by graded stakes winners Cat Fighter and Allspice.

Sunday's Fourth of July card features the $100,000 Saylorville for fillies and mares at six furlongs, which will include the Steve Asmussen-trained Savorthetime, and the $125,000 Iowa Sprint Handicap, which is expected to draw multiple stakes winners Cat Genius and Private Horde.

The five-furlong Prairie Gold Lassie for 2-year-old fillies starts the Festival on Thursday. All seven of the Gold Lassie entrants come into the race off open-length maiden victories last out.

Panorama Valley, who defeated males here by 10 1/2 widening lengths in a 4 1/2-furlong race on May 11, might well be the favorite under jockey Kelly Murray. Anne Mitchell trains Panorama Valley, a daughter of Peaks and Valleys.

Midnight Miss, a winner at Hawthorne in her debut, and Appealing Okie, an eight-length winner here on June 14, also figure to attract heavy support in a wide-open betting affair.

Departing Now heads an eight-horse field in the five-furlong Prairie Gold Juvenile.

Departing Now is the only entrant in the Juvenile who did not win his last start, but he faced much tougher company than the rest in this field, finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Flash at Belmont on June 4. He likely bled in that race and gets Lasix for the first time on Thursday.

In his only other career start, Departing Now scored a gate-to-wire, 6 3/4-length victory in maiden special weight company at Keeneland on April 22 for trainer Rebecca Maker. Frank Lovato Jr., who rode Departing Now to his Keeneland victory, will be here to ride on Thursday.

Debut maiden winner Foxie's Boy is a major threat in the Juvenile for trainer Jimmy Zook. Foxie's Boy led throughout in a 1 1/4-length victory in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race at Arlington Park on May 15.

Danush Sukie, who has teamed up with Zook for two stakes wins thus far at this meeting, will be in to ride Foxie's Boy.