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The Triple Crown Spoiler?

Horse racing: Perfect Drift, third at the Derby, sat out the Preakness but should challenge at the Belmont Stakes.


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Perfect Drift might have been stabled at a training center five miles from Churchill Downs before the Kentucky Derby, but it was impossible for trainer Murray Johnson to sneak his 3-year-old gelding into the race unnoticed.

Perfect Drift, after all, had won the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., 90 miles up the road from Churchill, and by post time on Derby day he was 7-1, the fourth choice in the field.

With a quarter-mile to go on May 4, Perfect Drift was only a head behind War Emblem, but there were traffic problems in the stretch and Johnson's horse finished third, beaten by 43/4 lengths. Johnson stayed in Kentucky while War Emblem added a Preakness win to his Derby trophy at Pimlico, but next Saturday in New York, Perfect Drift will again be a concern for the Triple Crown contender. Skipping the Preakness to run in the Belmont Stakes is not an unworkable plan; it worked in spades for Lemon Drop Kid and Commendable, who won in 1999 and 2000.

"The mile-and-a-half [Belmont] distance should be great for my horse," Johnson said Friday morning at Trackside, an old harness track that Churchill Downs uses for auxiliary stabling. "He's training the best ever since I got him. In the Derby, there was no pace and no race, it was as simple as that. My horse loomed on War Emblem, but then we got shut off in the stretch by good race-riding [by War Emblem's Victor Espinoza]. I think we can beat War Emblem this time, but to do that he'll have to be taken out of his game."

The Australian-born Johnson is considered a former California horseman who migrated to Kentucky, but actually he began his U.S. career here after leaving home 20 years ago. Stints with Shug McGaughey as an exercise rider and Carl Nafzger as an assistant trainer were followed by a job with John Gosden, the transplanted Englishman, on the West Coast.

Johnson might still be in California, but when Gosden returned to England in 1990, not many of his clients felt comfortable entrusting his trusted assistant with their best horses. Johnson still can't understand it.

"I ran an entire division for John," Johnson said. "At any one time, I was in charge of 32 horses. And I mean in charge. I hired jockeys, picked the races and entered the horses. John just wanted to know at all times what I was doing. But I was as close as you could come to calling all the shots. The owners knew that, and seemed to be happy with what I did. But then John went home, and all of that was forgotten. The horses were passed around to the established trainers."

Kentucky racing was enjoying a renaissance, so the move there was a no-brainer. Johnson even arrived with a Kentucky Derby horse--Green Alligator, who had won the California Derby. Hardly regarded, Green Alligator ran as a field horse, an entry the track handicapper felt had one of the least chances to win, but he finished fourth, only 31/2 lengths behind Strike The Gold. Green Alligator was withheld from the Preakness, then got sick and couldn't run in the Belmont, either. Now Johnson is going to New York with Perfect Drift, who'll try to become only the second gelding--after Creme Fraiche in 1985--to win the Belmont.

If horses react to psychology--who's to say they don't?--then Perfect Drift, who races for owner-breeder Bill Reed, a Kansas City heart surgeon, is getting invaluable off-the-track help. Hanging from the horse's stall is a plastic ball, a plaything, that Johnson painted with a picture of a horse and the words "War Emblem." With his nose, Perfect Drift makes a punching bag out of the War Emblem figure dozens of times a day.

Perfect Drift will have his final Belmont workout today, then, with Johnson aboard, make the first plane trip of his life next Wednesday. The real War Emblem will also be on that plane.

"I considered vanning him up to New York," Johnson said. "But the horse has always been good on all his van rides, so flying ought to be no problem for him."

In posting three wins, three seconds and one third in seven starts, Perfect Drift has never run outside Kentucky. He has scored his three victories at Turfway, where Eddie Delahoussaye, his Belmont jockey, rode him for the first time.

Delahoussaye got the call from Johnson, an old friend from his California days, when it appeared that Tony D'Amico, the regular rider on Repent and Harlan's Holiday, wouldn't be available for Perfect Drift in the Derby. Then D'Amico got bounced off both of his other horses and has missed the Triple Crown. In Delahoussaye, Johnson has a rider with a near-perfect Belmont record: victories with Risen Star in 1988 and A.P. Indy in 1992, and a second aboard Gato Del Sol in 1982. Delahoussaye has gone to New York only when he's had a strong hand.

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