03/04/2004 12:00AM

BC champ is big horse in Big Cap

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Pleasantly Perfect has risen from an outsider in the handicap division to a leader in the four months since he pulled a 14-1 upset in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic last October.

In the on Saturday, he will attempt to add to his collection of wins in legendary races. Pleasantly Perfect will be strongly favored to win the Big Cap, which is run over 1 1/4 miles and has a field of nine.

The $1 million purse of the Big Cap may not be as high as the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic or the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 27 - Pleasantly Perfect's next goal - but the prestige of the 67-year-old race more than justifies the start, trainer Richard Mandella said.

"I know there is a great money difference," Mandella said. "But the Handicap is one of those great races. It's one of the great jewels of racing."

Owned by Gerald Ford's Diamond A Racing, Pleasantly Perfect has won three consecutive stakes, a streak that includes the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap last October and the San Antonio Handicap here on Jan. 31. He will carry top weight of 123 pounds in the Big Cap.

Aside from his outstanding form, Pleasantly Perfect figures to get an ideal trip in the Big Cap. He is best when racing from the back of the field, and should have ample pace to follow from longshots Royal Place and Toccet, and the filly Island Fashion.

"He couldn't be better," Mandella said.

For rival horsemen, that statement is not good news, yet few have ducked the race.

Southern Image, winner of the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26 and the Sunshine Millions Classic for California-breds and Florida-breds on Jan. 24, will be the second choice.

Buddy Gil, the winner of the 2003 Santa Anita Derby and three other stakes, is trying to rebound from two losses at this meeting. He was a troubled 10th in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes on Feb. 7, but has trained well in recent weeks.

"All he needs is someone to let him run," trainer Jeff Mullins said. "The last race was a bad trip. He could have run the next day. If he runs his race, they'll have to run to beat him.

Buddy Gil is one of six 4-year-olds in the field. Olmodavor, also trained by Mandella is 5, Pleasantly Perfect is 6, and Star Cross is 7.

Island Fashion is trying to become the first filly to win the Big Cap. Two have run second, Next Move in 1951 and Gamely in 1969. Island Fashion has won two sprint stakes at this meet.

In the last week, Mandella has talked up his other starter, Olmodavor, who won the Whirlaway Handicap at Fair Grounds on Feb. 1. "He's in the best shape I've seen him," he said.

The Big Cap will be the longest race in the careers of Olmodavor and Southern Image.

While Olmodavor is a closer, Southern Image is aggressive, a style that concerns trainer Mike Machowsky in a race that requires stamina.

"I think he'll be a little keen," Machowsky said. "I'm glad there is a long run to the first turn. If he can relax and get a good position, we'll be all right. He's still got 'go' on his mind, but we're getting it out of him. He's an aggressive horse."

Southern Image's career has been limited by injuries and he will be making only his sixth career start in the Big Cap. He had two long layoffs last year.

Since winning the Sunshine Millions at 1 1/ 8 miles by three lengths, Southern Image has worked quickly at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, where he went for a workout on Feb. 21 because of wet track conditions at Santa Anita.

"Every time I've worked him I've been in awe," Machowsky said. "It's scary. I haven't gotten to the bottom of him yet."

The field

Santa Anita Handicap

Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYWT.ODDS
1Saint BuddyT. Baze11115-1
2Southern ImageV. Espinoza1185-2
3Royal PlaceJ. Valdivia Jr.11130-1
4Island FashionK. Desormeaux11512-1
5Pleasantly PerfectA. Solis1231-1
6Star CrossC. Nakatani11412-1
7ToccetE. Ramsammy11320-1
8OlmodavorM. Smith1195-1
9Buddy GilG. Stevens11715-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly