04/02/2004 1:00AM

Cherish these two throwbacks


NEW YORK - While many people in racing properly bemoan the fragility, abbreviated careers, and premature retirements of so many of the sport's shooting stars, there are two magnificent exceptions to that trend: Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro, whose duel in the desert in the Dubai World Cup last weekend received scant attention outside the racing press and who may well be underappreciated even within the game.

That both traveled 6,000 miles to a new venue and managed to run their best races, replicating their one-two finish in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic, was itself a testament to their quality and consistency. They went into the race as America's top horses in training, and emerged from it as something more: world-class heroes, legitimate candidates for the Hall of Fame, and perhaps worthy heirs to the best rivalries the game can produce.

Pleasantly Perfect, who joined Cigar as the only horses to win both the Classic and the World Cup, has earned $6.69 million and has never been better than he is now at the ripe age of 6. He didn't make his second career start until he was 4, and didn't win his first stakes race until October of that year. Raced lightly with just 15 career starts, he has been given every chance to reach his full potential and now looks simply unbeatable at 1 1/4 miles. With a Derby-laden pedigree (by Pleasant Colony from an Affirmed mare), he is a classic example of a truly classic horse.

Medaglia d'Oro, 5, has come out on the losing end of his two meetings with Pleasantly Perfect, but in many ways is just as admirable if not more so. His past performances are a roll call of the sport's greatest races, and he is the first Thoroughbred ever to contest all three legs of the Triple Crown, the Travers, the Classic, and the World Cup. He has finished worse than second only twice in 17 career starts - in the Derby and Preakness - and has banked $5.75 million.

While his list of stakes victories is rock-solid - San Felipe, Jim Dandy, Travers, Strub, Oaklawn Handicap, Whitney, Donn - his roster of second-place finishes is astounding: the Wood Memorial, Belmont Stakes, two Breeders' Cup Classics, the Pacific Classic, and the World Cup. Those six races alone offered combined purses of nearly $17 million.

He had the lead better than halfway through every one of those races, and his record appears to break down neatly by distance. He is 7 for 9 in races up to nine furlongs and 1 for 8 going farther. Still, it's a little unfair to say 1 1/8 miles is his upper limit. Some of his best races, both visually and by speed figures, have been his gritty efforts at 10 furlongs. He was never better than he was in defeat in last year's Classic, dueling with the brilliant Congaree for a mile and winning that epic battle before losing the war to Pleasantly Perfect. And it's not as if he would have lost races such as the Strub, Whitney, or Donn had they been a furlong farther.

The two of them are both throwbacks to a better time and yet reflective of how the game has changed. So few really good horses get the opportunity to race at 5 and 6 anymore that their age alone makes them exceptions among the best modern horses. On the other hand, Pleasantly Perfect has made just 15 career starts, Medaglia d'Oro just 17. They raced only 4 and 5 times, respectively, last year and that may be about all they do this season after recovering from their Dubai excursion.

Some sticklers will grumble at their Hall of Fame credentials for such relatively light careers compared to the warhorses of generations past or even the best of the 1990's: Cigar made 38 starts, and Skip Away had 33. Still, would you really have wanted Pleasantly Perfect or Medaglia d'Oro to have raced more often at the expense of being as good as they are right now?

If both of them make it to the Classic at Lone Star on Oct. 30, the storylines will be extraordinary: a final meeting between them, a possible run at earnings records, the matchup between the abundant training talents of Richard Mandella and Bobby Frankel, and Medaglia d'Oro's third try at the race after finishing second in both 2002 and 2003. A year ago, Breeders' Cup and television officials moaned that they had nothing to promote in the absence of Mineshaft, Empire Maker, and Candy Ride. This year's Classic could be the most compelling since the Easy Goer-Sunday Silence or Alysheba-Ferdinand showdowns in the Classic's early years.