Perfect Drift Seeks Comeback in Washington Park

Third in the 2002 Kentucky Derby (gr. I). A thrilling win over 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft in that year's Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I). Ten wins--six in graded stakes--and earnings of more than $3 million. On the board in 22 of 30 trips to the post. Strong credentials, to be sure.

But in the words of pop star Janet Jackson: "what have you done for me lately?"

There's something about an older gelding that speaks to even the most hardened race fan. Funny Cide provides a current example of a sentimental star whose past success makes him more attractive at the betting windows and in the paddock than perhaps his recent past performances should merit.

Without the standard equipment, a gelding is afforded instant underdog status. With a second career in the stud barn out of the question it's an all or nothing quest for glory right there on the track.

So it is with Perfect Drift, who finished second in four straight graded stakes in 2004 by a combined margin of less than five lengths--including a nose defeat to Roses in May in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I). Thanks to the defection of Ghostzapper and Eddington, a weakened handicap division awaits--the stall door left open for an experienced horse that always give his best to make a run for it.

On his run up to this year's campaign, the 6-year-old Dynaformer gelding was sidelined prior to the July 9 Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) with an eye problem. Trainer Murray Johnson may have been spared another second-place when Lava Man roared down the stretch to blow away his rivals, but Johnson doesn't view the race or his top earner that way.

"We don't tend to duck anybody," Johnson told the turf media in an NTRA teleconference call Tuesday. "We had been watching the races at Hollywood and the track was speed-favoring all week. You had to be one-two (at the top of the stretch) to win. It wasn't the quality of the horses. He just wasn't ready for that race."

Johnson believes his durable bay, who is the likely favorite in Saturday's Washington Park Handicap (gr. II) at Arlington Park, is ready to get back to form. The horse powered into Keeneland in April for a driving three-length win on the turf in an allowance contest after a four-month winter break.

"Of course the weight was a factor in the (2003) Stephen Foster, but he's as good today as he was then," Johnson said. "The second half the year is starting and there's plenty of time for him to step up and do his absolute best."

Perfect Drift was bred in Kentucky by Dr. William Reed, owner of Stonecrest Farm near Kansas City, Mo., along with his wife, Mary, and sons Brian and Martin. Johnson credits patient ownership for both the gelding's success and his longevity.

"He has a good owner," said Johnson. "It's a good-working team that lets us do the things we need to do, like give him a decent rest every year and not push him too hard. He lets us take care of the nagging problems before they become big problem--that's my job.

"Dr. Reed breeds and foals his horses in Kentucky," Johnson said, "but he brings them back to the farm and he raises all the horses there. It's within the city limits but it looks like a Lexington farm. He (Perfect Drift) gets his "R and R," he's turned out and treated like a regular horse. That helps them last longer."

Given his Dynaformer pedigree (he is out of the Naskra mare Nice Gal) and the recent win over the grass, Johnson was asked about leaving him in Chicago and pointing for the Arlington Million (gr. IT), a race he ran in (eighth, by 3 3/4 lengths) in 2003. Johnson also mentioned a rough trip (9th) in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) on Derby Day.

"He's tried the turf and he comes out of it well," he said. "You get both good and bad racing luck (referring to the Turf Classic), but the dirt tends to suit him and it's (the competition) not as tough. With the turf you usually run for less money and tougher horses show up. We're going to try to get him back to winning form on dirt and try the turf later."

Johnson said Perfect Drift would be aiming for the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) at Del Mar Aug. 21 if all goes well in the Washington Park. Perfect Drift won the Washington Park in his banner year of 2003. In last year's Pacific Classic, the hard-trying gelding finished a length behind Pleasantly Perfect just 15 days after his Whitney thriller with Roses in May.

Johnson, and his fans, are keeping the faith.