07/27/2006 12:00AM

Perfect Drift won't let backers down

Perfect Drift (middle) led in the Stephen Foster last month at Churchill Downs, but was nailed at the wire.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The common take on Perfect Drift these days is that he is years removed from his best form - still a top-level horse, but not one who yields favorable returns for his backers at the mutuel windows.

His past performances seem to support this take. In 21 starts since winning the Hawthorne Gold Cup in the fall of 2003, Perfect Drift has won just twice, scoring at 8-5 odds in a 2005 allowance at Keeneland and at 1-2 odds in last year's Washington Park Handicap. Bet him every time over that stretch, and you would be bleeding red.

But something tells me the fortunes of his supporters are about to change, at least as they relate to Saturday's Washington Park Handicap at Arlington. Perfect Drift appears set to return to winning form, and while he won't be a big number - he is 2-1 on the morning line - he may have enough doubters to make him at least a respectable price.

Although some observers were unimpressed by his runner-up finish behind Seek Gold in the Stephen Foster on June 17, I found his race encouraging. Rated in sixth for much of the race, Perfect Drift moved powerfully to take command in midstretch, only to relax upon making the lead. This allowed Seek Gold to rally late and nail him on the wire.

Admittedly, the Foster was slow. Seek Gold won the race by running 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.24, and Perfect Drift ran his final eighth in 13.21 seconds. But the race didn't set up quite to his benefit. Perfect Drift needs a target, and when he didn't get one in the stretch, he beat himself by losing focus when he hit the front.

With a different setup in the Washington Park, I see Perfect Drift returning to the winner's circle. Most of his chief competitors are front-runners or stalkers, such as Suave, Second of June, and Three Hour Nap. They should set an honest pace and stick around long enough to provide targets for Perfect Drift in the lane.

Given that scenario, I think Perfect Drift can run much faster than the 99 Beyer Speed Figure he earned in the Foster, likely posting a triple-digit figure, which will likely be good enough to handle the opposition.

Beyond that, I still have faith in Perfect Drift's class. A 7-year-old, he comes off a year in which he made $1.1 million, thanks in part to strong stakes efforts, such as his third-place finish in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic.

Although he hasn't won as much in recent years, what he has accomplished over his career is commendable. He has been among the nation's best, beginning with his 3-year-old season in 2002, when he was third in the Kentucky Derby.

I'll play Perfect Drift to win in the Washington Park Handicap and also use him in exotics with Three Hour Nap and Suave. Three Hour Nap is peaking and is 4 for 6 over the Arlington strip; Suave is coming off an allowance score over Second of June at Churchill Downs, a race that should set him up to return to his peak form from 2005.

Lady of Venice can beat elders

In other stakes action Saturday, the Grade 1 Diana at Saratoga shapes up as one of the most interesting races, if for no other reason than to see Lady of Venice face older mares.

To many, such a move represents a tremendous hurdle. I don't see it that way. It's been my experience that 3-year-old fillies more than hold their own when they are pitted against older mares, even in mid-summer. They're developed enough at this stage of the year to run well, and getting a five-pound weight break from the older mares is a bonus.

I also like the endorsement from trainer Patrick Biancone, who by placing Lady of Venice in the Diana is telling horseplayers that he views her as a star. Biancone also brings in a fresh filly. He bypassed a start in the American Oaks in California to avoid running her back on short rest.

Lady of Venice is ready, and against a field that seems light by Grade 1 standards, she should prove up to the challenge.