07/17/2003 12:00AM

Perfect Drift tries to show Foster no fluke


CHICAGO - Even with just five horses entered for Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Washington Park Handicap, it's not hard to wring interest from the 1 3/16-mile race.

First there is Perfect Drift, who can validate his stunning upset of Mineshaft last month in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. Third last year in the Kentucky Derby, Perfect Drift ran the race of his life to beat Mineshaft by a measured head, and jockey Pat Day, who engineered the victory, has followed him to Arlington.

"My main fear in staying here instead of going to the Hollywood Gold Cup was that we'd catch a small field devoid of pace," said Murray Johnson, who trains Perfect Drift for Dr. William Reed of Kansas City.

Small field, yes; paceless, no. In fact, three of Perfect Drift's four opponents could show speed. And if the pace turns leaden, Perfect Drift has plenty of tactical speed to attack early.

"He gallops along, and it doesn't seem like he's doing much, but he's going fast," said Joe Deegan, who rides Perfect Drift in his morning works. "Then he can sprint home the last eighth."

But Perfect Drift likes to cut things close. He had the measure of Mineshaft at the eighth pole in the Foster, but slowed down once he had taken the lead. Nobody, however, is better at judging when to move a horse than Day, and there is little reason to foresee Perfect Drift not being seriously involved at the finish.

Of the pace players, perhaps Iron Deputy will be most intent on the lead. In a career interrupted by injury, Iron Deputy ran his best race last month at Belmont, beating a top-class field in the Brooklyn Handicap. Iron Deputy led all the way in the Brooklyn, and jockey Richard Migliore should have him in front once again.

"He has plenty of natural speed," trainer James Jerkens said.

From Canada comes Phantom Light, an improving horse owned by Stronach Stable and trained by Danny Vella. "I broke him as a 2-year-old, and we always did like him," Vella said. "He just couldn't get consistent last season."

Flatter, who ships in from Kentucky for his stakes debut, and Aeneas, second in the Gulfstream Park Handicap early this year, complete the field.