10/15/2003 11:00PM

Classic field lives up to name

Pleasantly Perfect, shown working at Santa Anita recently, will go in this year's Breeders' Cup Classic after missing last year's because of bleeding.

ARCADIA, Calif. - In the weeks leading up to pre-entry day for the 20th Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, much of the attention was on who would not come. But the final count for pre-entries, announced Thursday at Santa Anita, was almost identical to that of the previous two years, and the day's premier event, the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, ended up with a terrific field.

A total of 101 individual horses were pre-entered in the eight Breeders' Cup races that will be held Oct. 25 during Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. That is only three fewer than the 104 pre-entered in both 2001, when the event was at Belmont Park, and 2002, when it was at Arlington Park. Eight horses this year were pre-entered in two races, so there are 109 total entries.

"It's on a par with the last couple of years," D.G. Van Clief Jr., the president of Breeders' Cup Ltd., said at a news conference Thursday morning at Santa Anita. "The fields are shaping up really nice, and that's, frankly, on the heels of a little apprehension the last couple of weeks."

With the exception of Mineshaft and Empire Maker, who were retired for stud duty in the past month, the Classic attracted every top horse still in training this fall. Medaglia d'Oro and Perfect Drift, each of whom could secure Horse of the Year honors with a victory, head the older runners in the race. Funny Cide, the best 3-year-old this spring, and Ten Most Wanted, the best 3-year-old this fall, both will be gunning for at least a divisional title.

Falbrav, the standout European grass horse, was pre-entered in both the Classic and the $2 million Turf, and though the Turf has been selected as the first choice, the Classic remains a very viable option. Volponi, last year's upset winner, is back to defend his title. The versatile Congaree, who this summer captured the Hollywood Gold Cup, will try to win his second 1 1/4-mile race this year. Pleasantly Perfect, who has captured the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap each of the last two years, is seeking sweet redemption after a bleeding episode kept him from competing in last year's Classic.

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, also was pre-entered in the Classic, but that was denoted as the 5-year-old mare's second choice. The $2 million Distaff, which she won last year, is her intended spot.

Azeri and Volponi are two of three 2002 Breeders' Cup winners who are back this year. The other is High Chaparral, who will defend his title in the Turf.

Richard Mandella, the trainer of Pleasantly Perfect, and Bobby Frankel, who trains Medaglia d'Oro, lead all trainers with eight pre-entries each. Mandella's 2-year-old filly Halfbridled, figures to be the day's heaviest favorite, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Mandella won two Breeders' Cup races the last time the Breeders' Cup was held at Santa Anita, in 1993.

"During the day I was in too much shock to appreciate it, and by the time I realized what had happened, everyone had gone home," Mandella said.

Mandella and trainer Julio Canani, who trains Mile entrant Special Ring, tried to liven up the news conference. "What do Arnold Schwarzenegger and Julio Canani have in common?" asked Canani, who has a thick Peruvian accent. "They both can't speak English," he said, giggling.

Schwarzenegger, the governor-elect of California, is expected to attend the Breeders' Cup.

The Breeders' Cup - which consists of eight races worth a total of $14 million - has a two-stage entry process. During the pre-entry stage, which was announced Thursday, horses are allowed to enter more than one race, but their owners or trainers must rank their choice of races. Also, a portion of the entry fee must be paid, and for horses who need to be supplemented, one-third of that fee is due.

Next Wednesday morning, final entries are due. Any horse who has been pre-entered in more than one race must at that point be entered in only one. Final entry and supplemental fees are due, and then post positions for all eight races are drawn.

Three of the eight races attracted more than the maximum of 14 runners who can compete in each race. In those races - the Mile, Sprint, and Juvenile - seven horses gained berths based on points earned in graded stakes in the United States this year. The remaining seven were selected by an international panel of racing officials, who then placed the remaining runners on an also-eligible list. Those horses can only get into the race if someone already in the main body of the race defects between now and Wednesday.

In the Sprint and Juvenile, 15 were entered, so only one is on the also-eligible list. In the Mile, three horses were placed on the also-eligible list, and they are listed in the order of preference of the international panel.

Of the 14 horses pre-entered in the Classic, five were pre-entered in two races. Azeri is a virtual cinch to run in the Distaff, her first choice. Congaree was also pre-entered in the Sprint, but his trainer, Bob Baffert, on Thursday said the Sprint is not an option. He will go in the Classic, his first choice.

Peace Rules was also pre-entered in the Mile, which is his first choice. Toccet also was pre-entered in the Turf, which is his first choice.

No matter which race Falbrav runs in, the Classic or the Turf, he will have to be supplemented for a total of 9 percent of that race's purse. In the Classic, that comes to $360,000. The fee is $180,000 for the Turf.

So, even though 14 were pre-entered in the Classic, no more than 11 should start, with Azeri, Peace Rules, and Toccet running elsewhere on the card.

This is the 20th Breeders' Cup, and the third that will be held at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. There had been several false starts in getting the Breeders' Cup to Santa Anita for this third time. On two occasions in previous years, it appeared the Breeders' Cup was headed here, but both times it was scuttled by Frank Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment owns Santa Anita.

"It's hard to believe we're finally doing this," said Sherwood Chillingworth, Oak Tree's executive vice president, who spearheaded the bid. "We broke through the gate twice."