10/10/2003 11:00PM

Stevens to ride Perfect Drift

Perfect Drift, winning the Kentucky Cup Classic, finished his last eighth in 11.20 seconds in a work Saturday.

Three of the best horses still in training - Azeri, Medaglia d'Oro, and Perfect Drift - all had important workouts on Saturday in preparation for the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup, and Perfect Drift's riding assignment was finalized, with Gary Stevens getting the call.

Perfect Drift, who is based at the Trackside training facility a few miles from Churchill Downs, worked five furlongs in 1:01.20 with jockey Joe Deegan, Perfect Drift's usual work partner. Murray Johnson, who trains the 4-year-old gelding for Dr. William Reed's Stonecrest Farm, was thrilled with the work.

"He went off easy, about 25 and change, and really went strong around the turn," Johnson said from Kentucky. "He finished his last eighth in 11 and one [11.20 seconds], and kept on rolling." Johnson said he timed Perfect Drift galloping out six furlongs in 1:13, and seven furlongs in "just under 1:26."

Perfect Drift is scheduled to have another workout next Saturday at Trackside. He will travel to California only a few days before the $4 million Classic at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. A victory in that race would make Perfect Drift a leading contender for Horse of the Year.

Pat Day had been the regular jockey for Perfect Drift, but when he chose to ride Travers Stakes winner Ten Most Wanted in the Classic, the mount on Perfect Drift became open. Johnson on Saturday said Stevens would ride.

"Gary has won 29 races of $1 million or more, and nine Santa Anita derbies," Johnson said. "There's no one better. We felt if we came down to a head-and-head battle, he was the one we would want."

Stevens called Perfect Drift "the best pick-up mount I've ever had."

"The way he's done it this year they haven't gotten to the bottom of him," Stevens said at Santa Anita. "I talked to Murray for a while and he's doing great. I think he's the best horse in the country."

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, worked a half-mile in a quick 45.80 seconds at San Luis Rey Downs in her first drill since losing the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap 13 days earlier. That race marked her first loss after 11 straight victories. She bled in the race, and a subsequent blood test revealed a high white cell count.

Laura de Seroux, Azeri's trainer, said Azeri was "back to her old self" on Saturday. She is being prepared for a defense of her title in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

"She worked super," de Seroux said. "Five days ago we were still grounded. Four days ago we had a little liftoff. Three days ago we were wheels up, yesterday we were cruising, and now we're at Mach speed. She galloped out five furlongs in 58, three-quarters in 1:12, and scoped clean."

Azeri is scheduled to work again on Friday. That six-furlong drill will be her final work for the Distaff, de Seroux said.

Medaglia d'Oro, who is training at Hollywood Park, flew through seven furlongs there in 1:25. He could rule a slight favorite over Perfect Drift and Ten Most Wanted in the Classic.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen