still in the race at age 9

It has only been six months since Perfect Drift arrived in trainer Richard Mandella's barn, but the Hall of Fame conditioner has already learned the rules when it comes to dealing with the the former Grade I winner.

For starters, you don't dare approach the bay gelding in his stall unless you are ready to fend off his teeth.

Most important, you don't dare make retirement plans for the 9-year-old warrior until he tells you he is good and ready.

In a time when the durability of Thoroughbred racehorses has come under heavy fire, the sport could ask for no greater ambassador than this one who is likely to race this weekend.

On Saturday, Perfect Drift will again be a presence in one of sport's premier races, as he is expected to start in the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park.

Last summer, even Perfect Drift's staunchest supporters thought his seemingly ageless run had come to an end, when a slight crack in his left front cannon bone was discovered after he ran fifth in an allowance race at his old base of Churchill Downs.

Instead, Stonecrest Farm's Dynaformer gelding returned to training four months ago, and he's set to make his 48th career start and his 21st start in a Grade I race this weekend.

“(Owner) Dr. William Reed gave me one request ... and that was if I ever thought he wasn't going in the right direction or if he could not compete at a good level, that it would be time to retire him,” said Mandella, who took over Perfect Drift after his original trainer, Murray Johnson, went into another field last year. “You have to keep your ideas open, because they do change as they get older, but everything we've seen from him has been great so far.

“You couldn't want him to look any better than he does right now. He acts like he wants to go to work.”

A glance at Perfect Drift's past performances is like looking at a who's-who of racing's more recent stars.

As a 3-year-old, Perfect Drift ran third behind champion War Emblem in the 2002 Kentucky Derby. A year later he beat eventual Horse of the Year Mineshaft in the 2003 Stephen Foster Handicap for his lone Grade I triumph.

At age 7, Perfect Drift started in the Breeders' Cup Classic for a record fifth consecutive time, but he has been winless in 16 starts since his victory in the 2005 Grade II Washington Park Handicap.

If ever there were a trainer who could coax a top-flight performance from an aging star, Mandella is unequivocally the one. It was his patient hands that had turf star The Tin Man still winning Grade I races at age 9 before injury finally ended that gelding's brilliant career.

“I don't do anything really different (with older horses) than I do with the younger ones,” Mandella said. “You just don't get as many good horses staying around this long because they're retired to stud.

“But this one is a gelding, so his breeding career is put off for quite a while,” he added with a chuckle.

In his first start for Mandella, which was also his return from a near-10-month layoff, Perfect Drift was faced with an ambitious litmus test when he ran in the Grade I Shoemaker Mile Stakes on the turf at Hollywood on May 26.

Although the bay gelding finished fourth, he was beaten by just 23/4 lengths by the talented Daytona.

“I know he's got the capabilities to win a Grade I like this,” Mandella said. “I thought the Shoemaker was a pretty good test to see what level he was at. I think he was very competitive considering he hadn't run in a long time and it wasn't his preferred surface.”

With 11 wins and career earnings of almost $4.7 million, Perfect Drift is third on the money list of active campaigners, behind reigning Horse of the Year Curlin and fellow gelding Lava Man.

Most of his current rivals weren't born when Perfect Drift broke his maiden at Turfway Park in December 2001. And most will be lucky to have a career half as enduring and productive as his.

“The good horses do have a lot of character and usually they have strong thoughts,” Mandella said. “That's generally why they're as good as they are. They're special and they usually know it.”