08/17/2005 11:00PM

A rare horse built to last

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The dinosaur has returned to Del Mar, in good form and primed to fire big in the $1 million Pacific Classic. If that's good enough to win, great. If not, so what. It doesn't matter a whit to Perfect Drift.

Playing the part of the ultimate road warrior, Perfect Drift is a throwback to days long gone from the racing scene, when no one thought twice about the regular appearances of Stymie, Find, and Armed.

Even as recently as the early 1990's - please, it wasn't that long ago - older male champions like Pleasant Tap, Black Tie Affair, and Criminal Type established their credentials with campaigns in the 10-start range, leaving little doubt as to their quality. Mineshaft, to his credit, at least ran those nine races in 2003.

But these days, more often than not, the handicap division finds itself rife with hothouse flowers, Rock Hard Tens and Roses in Mays, who win big then become mere backstretch rumors. Call it the Ghostzapper Effect, with such antecedents as Left Bank (four starts and a championship in 2002) and Victory Gallop (three starts and a prize in 1999), the result of slim pickings top to bottom in a division that is supposed to supply year-round entertainment.

One thread of thought blames the lack of depth among good older runners on the inordinate emphasis placed upon making the Kentucky Derby field as young 3-year-olds. Like hot fuel, they burn fast and disappear.

Perfect Drift was in the Derby field on the first Saturday of May 2002 and did himself proud, finishing third in the paceless promenade of War Emblem. Of the 18 runners that day, only four are still in training, and of those, only Perfect Drift and Request for Parole can be considered stakes-quality performers. Lusty Latin and Easy Grades, the other survivors, have been running for claiming tags.

In Sunday's 15th running of the Pacific Classic, Perfect Drift will be making his fifth start this year since returning from his winter break in April. If all goes well, trainer Murray Johnson and the family of Dr. William Reed hope to run their gelding twice more - in the Hawthorne Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic - which would give Perfect Drift seven starts in just over six months. Then, after a break on the Reeds' Stonecrest Farm in Kansas, the old horse will be at it again next season at age 7.

"I don't know why it's such a big deal," said Johnson late Thursday morning as Perfect Drift bobbed his handsome head and nipped at a visitor. "Proven Cure is 11, and he's won five straight, including a stakes at Remington Park just the other day."

Apparently, Stonecrest breeds them to last. Proven Cure, a son of Cure the Blues, has won 18 of 79 starts for the Reeds and has become a five-furlong grass sensation in Texas and Oklahoma, with trainer John Locke deputizing for Johnson. By comparison, Perfect Drift, with 11 wins in 31 races and $3.4 million in earnings, has only scratched the depths of his longevity.

"I'd like to think so," Johnson said, recalling a conversation with Ron McAnally about John Henry being Horse of the Year at the age of 9. "Gives us something to shoot for."

The Pacific Classic has been on Perfect Drift's dance card since he ran in it last summer, finishing only a length second to Pleasantly Perfect. Johnson said he feels his horse has more in the tank this time around.

"You'll remember that last year at this time he was coming off that tough loss in the Whitney to Roses in May, and I still feel like we ran the best horse that day," Johnson said.

Johnson and his owners have been blessed by Perfect Drift's soundness and relatively good health. There have been minor blips to deal with, including an ulcerated left eyeball that kept him home in Louisville last month instead of in the field for the Hollywood Gold Cup. But Johnson says the eye is sharp again.

"Horses get them from time to time," he said. "His seemed to clear up, but it might not have healed completely and then came back a bit. He was fitted with a contact lens to protect it when he ran in the Washington Park Handicap, and it didn't seem to bother him that day."

Indeed not. Perfect Drift snapped his 12-race losing streak in stakes company that day at Arlington Park with a 4 1/4-length win, a dead solid prep for the Pacific Classic.

"He was still running very good races against real good horses," Johnson said. "The other day at Arlington, he didn't exactly run away from those horses. They got tired. He ran the same race against Saint Liam [in the Stephen Foster], but the difference was that Saint Liam started his run a couple lengths in front of us and kicked home like a good horse."

At some point after the Washington Park Handicap, Perfect Drift popped his contact lens, but by that time the eye was fine, sparing Johnson the undignified task of sifting through his stall.

"He's worth the trouble, though," said Johnson. "Got to keep these old boys happy and going strong."