07/26/2006 11:00PM

Tougher competition this year for Perfect Drift


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - About 100 yards from the finish of the Stephen Foster Handicap, you could see who was going to win Kentucky's richest, most prestigious annual race for older dirt route horses. Perfect Drift, at age 7 was on the brink of earning his second victory in the Foster, having beaten Mineshaft in 2003.

"I guess I was thinking how I could spend the money," said trainer Murray Johnson, asked his thoughts when Perfect Drift was a half-furlong from the Foster finish, clear of eight opponents.

And then, emerging from a mass of beaten rivals, appeared a horse finishing fast. Seek Gold was 91-1, had never won a race anywhere near as important as the Foster, but he hit the wire together with Perfect Drift.

"I didn't see the other horse coming, and then afterward I still thought we hung on," said Johnson, who trains Perfect Drift for the Stonecrest Farm of William and Mary Reed. "We went down to the track, still hoping, but . . . We'll live."

The sting of that nose loss could be eased Saturday at Arlington Park, where Perfect Drift will try to win the Grade 2, $300,000 Washington Park Handicap for the second straight year and third time in four seasons. Last year, Perfect Drift got in serious trouble at the quarter pole and still won this race going away, but the opposition is appreciably stronger now. Just outside Perfect Drift, who drew the rail, is Three Hour Nap, among the best of the Chicago handicap horses; then comes Iosilver, the speed of the Washington Park, the longshot O'Connells, Second of June, Suave, and Nolan's Cat. Iosilver has an outside chance to wire the field, but Nolan's Cat, and to an even greater extent, O'Connell's seem unlikely winners.

Suave and Second of June figure to be accorded the best chances of beating Perfect Drift, who has 11 second-place finishes to go with 11 wins in a six-season career that has netted almost $4.5 million in purses. Perfect Drift has won his share, but in races like the Foster, he has missed chances at even greater success.

"He cruises up to the lead, and the riders all can feel him back up," Johnson said.

Suave traded decisions with Perfect Drift last year, finishing behind him in the Breeders' Cup Classic and four lengths ahead of him in the Clark Handicap. Suave lost his form this past winter at Gulfstream Park, and was freshened after a pair of sixth-place finishes, returning to the races with a narrow score over Second of June in a June 16 Churchill Downs allowance.

"We trained him light for a month or two, then started back with him," Sauve's trainer, Paul McGee, said. "I'd say he's doing even better coming out of that allowance race than going into it."

Second of June was among the top 3-year-old prospects of 2004, but has seen his career curtailed by two injury-related layoffs, the more recent of which ended with that Churchill allowance.

"We're basically taking it one race at a time," said trainer Bill Cesare. "Right now the objective is to come to Arlington and win the race."

Three Hour Nap won the National Jockey Club Handicap in April at Hawthorne, finished third in the Hanshin Handicap here at a distance shorter than his best, and comes of a solid second behind a runaway winner in the Cornhusker Handicap on July 1.

"He's a pretty good horse," said trainer Hugh Robertson, "and it looks like he's getting a little better this year with maturity, a little better every time. If he moves up a little bit more this race, he's got a chance with these horses."

The field

Washington Park Handicap
Purse: $300,000; 1 3/16 miles; Grade 2

1Perfect DriftM. Guidry1192-1
2Three Hour NapF. Torres1155-1
3IosilverE. Perez11110-1
4O'Connell'sJ. Campbell11412-1
5Second of JuneR. Albarado1164-1
6SuaveC. Borel 1183-1
7Nolan's CatC. Emigh1136-1

* Track odds
* Television: Saturday, 5-6 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN