11/23/2005 12:00AM

Perfect Drift's turn

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Suave, here winning the Saratoga Breeders' Cup, looks like the main competition for Perfect Drift in the Clark. Suave will have Rafael Bejarano in the saddle.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - No one could be blamed for wondering if Saint Liam is lurking somewhere in the shadows of Churchill Downs. Not only did Saint Liam dominate the last two major handicaps at Churchill, but his name runs rampant through the past performances of several key runners who will clash Friday in the highlight of the fall meet, the 131st running of the $500,000 .

Alas, Saint Liam is long gone, having been retired to stud at Lane's End Farm. That's welcome news for Perfect Drift, Suave, and the other 10 horses in a deep and well-matched Clark. Saint Liam was an emphatic winner of the Oct. 29 Breeders' Cup Classic, a race in which Perfect Drift and Suave both performed admirably when they finished third and fifth, respectively.

The BC Classic was the exclamation point in the stellar career of Saint Liam, who shipped from New York to Churchill to win the Grade 2 Clark last fall and the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap last spring. So with Saint Liam finally out of their hair, Friday would be a perfect time for Perfect Drift or Suave to step up and be counted in a big way.

"Our horse came out of the Breeders' Cup in perfect shape," said Murray Johnson, trainer of Perfect Drift. "He's sitting on a big race, I believe."

Perfect Drift, with Mark Guidry to ride, will break from post 3 when he spots his rivals four to 11 pounds as the 122-pound highweight in the 1 1/8-mile Clark.

Perfect Drift, bred and owned by Dr. William Reed's Stonecrest Farm, has come to define a high-class hard-knocker, having accumulated more than $4.2 million in career earnings while dodging no one. On consistency alone, he deserves top consideration in the 1 1/8-mile Clark, although the horse who appears to be his main foe, Suave, has really turned the corner this year and also could be sitting on a breakthrough victory.

Rafael Bejarano, the leading rider at the fall meet, has the mount on Suave, a 4-year-old A.P. Indy colt who was fourth behind Saint Liam last fall in the Clark.

If neither of the favorites comes through, then one of the "A Team" horses seems capable of pulling the mild upset: A. P. Arrow, Alumni Hall, or Andromeda's Hero.

A. P. Arrow was entered in the BC Classic but was excluded when the race overfilled. That leaves his most recent start as the Oct. 1 Super Derby, a 1 1/4-mile race in which the 3-year-old colt came flying and barely missed catching the winner, The Daddy. In the eight weeks since that last race, A. P. Arrow has trained well at Churchill for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Alumni Hall enters off a victory in the Fayette Stakes at Keeneland, a victory that gave the 6-year-old horse his ninth win from 19 starts. Alumni Hall, trained by Neil Howard, has won both of his starts over the Churchill main track.

Andromeda's Hero, with John McKee to ride, is the deep threat of the group, having developed a left-field style that would serve him well in case the pace in the Clark unfolds too quickly.

Other top contenders include Magna Graduate, a rallying winner of the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap on the Breeders' Cup undercard for the always-dangerous team of Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez; Total Impact, a California invader who won the 2004 Hollywood Gold Cup and will have one of North America's hottest jockeys, Garrett Gomez, in the saddle; and M B Sea, an inconsistent but nonetheless capable 6-year-old trained by Dale Romans.

The rest of the Clark field is Purim, Go Now, Stolen Time, and Chippewa Trail.

The Clark is the focus of what always is the biggest day of the Churchill fall meet. Local fans have made a longstanding tradition of flocking to the track on the day after Thanksgiving, and the annual result is a meet-high crowd in the neighborhood of 20,000.

Accordingly, Churchill's racing secretary, Doug Bredar, and his staff have assembled another terrific undercard to enhance the Clark. The first of 12 races will be run at 11:30 a.m. Eastern, with the Clark, the 11th, set for 4:29 p.m. Eastern.

The field

Clark Handicap
Purse: $500,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 2

1A. P. ArrowJ. Jacinto11120-1
2PurimG. Stevens11420-1
3Perfect DriftM. Guidry1225-2
4Go NowC. Perret11220-1
5Magna GraduateJ. Velazquez1164-1
6Stolen TimeM. Smith11330-1
7SuaveR. Bejarano1183-1
8M B SeaC. Lanerie11415-1
9Chippewa Trail. Castanon11230-1
10Alumni HallR. Albarado1175-1
11Andromeda's HeroJ. McKee11312-1
12Total ImpactG. Gomez1178-1

* Track odds