Champion geldings Brass Hat, Perfect Drift finally go head to head

By Maryjean Wall

The Thrilla in Manila had nothing over the dust-up brewing between the Titans of Trackside.

And to think both these guys dote on peppermints.

Never mind. Get to the drumroll, please:

In one corner, shedding his satiny cape, raising his two front dukes and spitting a menacing hay wad across the ring, we have the amazing, forever-young, 7-year-old one-time Stephen Foster Handicap winner Perfect Drift, back for his fourth go on Saturday in this $750,000 Grade I race.

In the other corner, casting a worldly glance around the ring, the well-traveled Dubai kid, Brass Hat, sizes up the chomping monster on the far side of the ring. He stares down the long length of his horse nose with a bored, disdainful look. How many stamps does that old guy over there have on his passport, anyway? None. Enough said.

The ring will fill by post time with 10 entered, including Buzzards Bay, fifth last year in the Kentucky Derby. The field actually includes four geldings: Wiggins and Seek Gold are the other two.

It's the Titans of Trackside, however, who are the story of this race.

Not often does a Grade I event draw a pair of prominent geldings.

Two rare occasions, in recent memory, were the Breeders' Cup Classics of 2003 and 2004. Perfect Drift met Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide both times, with Perfect Drift always finishing ahead of Funny Cide, even if neither won the race.

The odds are even longer that two denizens of Churchill Downs' off-campus stabling on Poplar Level Road -- called Trackside -- would work their way up to becoming two of the top betting choices in a $750,000 Grade I race.

Winners can and do come out of Trackside. But the major stables do not make their headquarters here. They're all at Churchill Downs, 5 miles away. Where the action is.

Against long odds, however, two renowned geldings have become the poster competitors for this Churchill Downs annex. Perfect Drift took the show national, and Brass Hat took it worldwide to finish second this year in the $6 million Dubai World Cup. (A subsequent disqualification for a steroid anti-inflammatory injected in his hind leg joints is under appeal.)

The two take their exercise on the same 6-furlong training track here. Frequently, they pass one another walking to and from the track. Only a couple of barns separate their individual stables.

Now they'll race against each other for the first time. Will the 7-year-old, Perfect Drift, be fully ready for a Grade I race in only his third start this year? Will Brass Hat, 5 years old, be fully recovered after his long trip to Dubai in March?

And why should the sport of racing care about two geldings anyway, when they'll never head to the breeding shed to pass on their genes?

That's the real question as these two prepare for their first encounter. But a good question for the sport, nonetheless. Consider this from the perspective of racing fans.

"Where a lot of people complain about lack of longevity in this sport, with the lack of stars, geldings have durability," said John Asher, vice president for communications at Churchill Downs. That's why Perfect Drift is still racing at age 7, when a horse of his quality would have been long ago retired to the stud farm.

Geldings, as Asher pointed out, make better athletes, get more focused on the job of racing "and don't worry much about frivolous things," he said.

Some of the greatest racehorses ever were geldings: Forego, Kelso, John Henry, and more recently, Best Pal.

But with so much potential earning power in the stud, it's easy to see why horse owners are reluctant to castrate their animals, even when personality or physical problems might point to the act of gelding a horse as its best future.

As for these two geldings, both have earned the right to be in this Grade I race -- the campaigning through successful careers that might not have gone well had they not been gelded.

Brass Hat, who began his career in a $15,000 claiming race at Turfway Park, won a succession of stakes races this winter before his runner-up finish to Electrocutionist in the Dubai World Cup.

Perfect Drift beat Horse of the Year Mineshaft when he won this race in 2003. In two more attempts, he finished third both times. He's won more than $4.3 million in his long career.

A sense of friendly camaraderie pervades their camps. They share a sense of Trackside community, as do all who are stabled off-campus here.

"I want them to do well, but not too well," joked Perfect Drift's trainer, Murray Johnson.

Ring the bell. Let the first round begin.


Stephen Foster Handicap

Post time: 6:13 p.m.

Distance: 11/8 miles

For: 3-year-olds and up TV: ESPN