02/21/2002 1:00AM

Quite a name to live up to


ARCADIA, Calif. - The first time a horse was named Above Perfection - at least according to records kept by The Jockey Club - was in 1989. He was a son of Great Above, out of a mare named Shrewd Judge, and he was bred in Florida by Art and David Kegley.

He was not perfect. But what horse is? Above Perfection began his career at Tampa Bay Downs in March of 1992 and came to the end of the line at the same track two years later. In between he raced at Calder and Birmingham. Remember Ala-

bama racing? He started 30 times for Ron Jerdee, who was both his owner and his trainer, and he won four times.

Perfection, although impossible to achieve, is an admirable goal. The next time the name was used, they nearly got it right. Above Perfection, the 4-year-old filly who will be running at Santa Anita on Saturday, has won four of her six races, including the Orinda Handicap at Golden Gate in her last start.

Before that she emptied her tank on a breakneck pace in the La Brea Stakes and ran fifth, although the seven furlongs may have been a shade out of her reach. Above Perfection's best race may have been her only other loss, when she ran Xtra Heat to a neck in the six-furlong Prioress Stakes at Belmont Park last July. All they did was set a stakes record of 1:08.26.

If it happens on Saturday, Above Perfection's fifth win will not come easily. The setting will be the Las Flores Handicap at six furlongs, and she will be facing the top older female sprinter in the West, Kalookan Queen, who is coming off a victory in the Santa Monica Handicap. On paper, it looks like a match race.

Above Perfection is only the latest in a fabled line of solid racehorses bred and raised by the Johnston family of Old English Rancho. With a history that dates back to the late 1940's, no West Coast name has enjoyed a longer run at the top of the game. Among the best produced by Old English have been More Megaton, Real Good Deal, Generous Portion, June Darling, Fleet Treat, Impressive Style, Softshoe Sure Shot, Stylish Winner, Halo Folks, and Her Royalty.

Buddy Johnston picked up for his father, Ellwood "Pieman" Johnston, and the farm never missed a beat. Now Buddy, at the age of 65, considers himself semiretired, although half-speed for Johnston would be full speed ahead for most people.

"He's had to slow down a little," said Patsy McKuen, the manager of Old English Rancho, from her offices in the city of Ontario, 30 miles east of L.A. "He had quadruple bypass surgery six years ago and a heart attack last year, and his doctors told him he really had to change his pace if he wanted to stay alive any length of time."

Above Perfection could learn from such advice. Competitive to a fault, she seems to care very little about such subtle concepts as rating and waiting. Her approach is simple and direct. Start fast, run hard, go home and eat. Apparently, she has been in a hurry from the beginning.

"She has a very good mind," McKuen said. "She was always very quick to learn everything. You know how some kids, when they start kindergarten, they're ready for the third grade. We had to make sure she didn't get ahead of herself."

Somehow, Above Perfection was kept under wraps until May of 2001. She won her maiden first time out for trainer Don Warren at Hollywood Park. Within the month, however, she was sold to David Milch in a five-horse package and turned over to trainer Darrell Vienna.

"It was tough to let her go," McKuen said. "But we knew she was going to a good owner and a good trainer. They haven't let us down."

Above Perfection was raised on the 400-acre Old English Rancho spread in the San Joaquin Valley, about 200 miles north of its original site. The Ontario office used to be at the heart of the breeding operation, but now the property has been overrun by Southern California's eastward sprawl of industry and suburban housing tracts.

"We do all the billing, the correspondence and the advertising down here, and it's worked out well, thanks to e-mail," McKuen said. "But I miss getting up every morning and seeing the babies, and hearing the breeding going on behind the office."

It was McKuen, with the help of her staff, who came up with Above Perfection's name. Wasn't that going out on a limb?

"Well, what is 'in excess' of 'something perfect?' " McKuen wondered, citing the names of both sire and dam. Hard to argue.

Something Perfect was a daughter of Secretariat's brother Somethingfabulous, and she was 18 when she produced Above Perfection. Something Perfect died last summer at the age of 21, four months after delivering one last filly, this one by the Gone West stallion Perfect Mandate. Since it worked before, McKuen is once again tempted to shoot for the obvious.

"I told Buddy we should name this one Perfect Perfect," she said.