10/27/2004 11:00PM

Everything has to go perfect


GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Richard Mandella likes to describe Pleasantly Perfect as a big puppy, playful and drowsy by turns, prone to bouts of pointless activity followed by long, meditative stares into the mysterious distance.

"Stop it," Mandella commanded as Pleasantly Perfect nibbled his shank and nipped at the air around his trainer. "Behave yourself."

It was Wednesday afternoon - 72 hours before Pleasantly Perfect would be stepping onto the stage at Lone Star Park as the defending champion in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic - and Mandella was taking advantage of the mild Texas breeze cutting through Mike Stidham's Barn C3 on the Lone Star backside.

Mandella was doing the job himself, walking Pleasantly Perfect round and round the spacious barn aisles, while groom Humberto Correa tidied the stall and exercise rider Crystal Brown peeled sheets of cotton gauze for the standing bandages. Every turn or so, Mandella would stop to give his big puppy a chance to sniff the wind, or eyeball the mare grazing outside the barn, then it was back to pounding the steady shed row beat.

Training Thoroughbreds is like this - even at Mandella's lofty level - comprised of long stretches of quiet industry, all of it geared to the rhythms of the horse. The spectacular bursts of action on the track, both morning and afternoon, represent only a small piece of the picture. The rest - the largest part - is watching, waiting, and attending to the smallest details.

Win or lose on Saturday, Mandella's work with Pleasantly Perfect will go down in training history as a textbook case of perseverance in the face of daunting odds. Every corner of Mandella's craft was tapped to accommodate the challenges, from the heart sac disease that rendered Pleasantly Perfect a sorry weakling at age 3, to assorted soreness and bruises as his ability took hold, to a horseshoe crisis last March that could have ended the story in the blink of an eye.

"We'd just come back to the barn in Dubai after a gallop," Mandella recalled. "Alex Solis's son, Alex Jr., came running into the office and said that Jose - Jose Vera went there instead of Humberto - needed me right away. I told him I'd be right there. Little Alex said, 'No, Mr. Mandella. Jose needs you there right now.' "

To Mandella's horror, Pleasantly Perfect was standing on three legs, with his groom holding the right fore in one hand and the shank in the other. Somehow, the big horse had snagged the shoe and pulled away the inside rim of the aluminum plate. Three nails were fully exposed and aimed straight at the sole of his foot.

"If he'd put that foot down, there's no telling what kind of damage could have been done," Mandella said. "I had to get the shoe off, but I couldn't just rip it off or the whole wall could have been damaged."

Mandella, the son of a farrier, grabbed the foot and tried to wiggle the sprung shoe free. To his credit, Pleasantly Perfect stood quietly, wearing a "Huh? What'd I do?" expression.

"You know how sometimes in an emergency situation people get superhuman strength?" Mandella said. "I don't know how I did it, but I was able to pop the shoe right off, and it came away clean. I was never so relieved in my life. It could have been game over, right there."

History will note that Pleasantly Perfect, his right front hoof repaired with a putty compound and a new shoe, ran the race of his life in Dubai to defeat Medaglia d'Oro in the World Cup. Five months later, his hoof fully healed, he beat Perfect Drift at Del Mar in the Pacific Classic. On Saturday, if he can defend his title in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Pleasantly Perfect will be the first older American Thoroughbred to take three major 10-furlong dirt races in the same season since Cigar won four in 1995.

Last year, Pleasantly Perfect was the crowning touch to Mandella's unprecedented four-winner day at the Santa Anita Breeders' Cup. The Hall of Fame trainer ended the afternoon rolling like a kid in his precious patch of grazing grass outside his barn, giddy beyond reason.

The 2004 season, by contrast, has been a cold slap of reality. Mandella's 3-year-olds fizzled early. His 2-year-olds have yet to come around. And the older horses were either retired, or began to show their age.

Except for Pleasantly Perfect. The big horse has saved Mandella's year, and now there are just two more mountains to climb. If he emerges intact from the Classic, Pleasantly Perfect will make the final start of his career in the $2.2 million Japan Cup Dirt at Tokyo Racecourse on Nov. 28. After that, it's off to stud.

"Here he is, by Pleasant Colony, which is going to get you turf or dirt," Mandella said. "Then he's out of a precocious Affirmed mare who was a Grade 1 winner at 2 in Europe, where they run against the boys. What a balance."

And what a hunk. In a Classic field with such handsome, racy types as Ghostzapper and Roses in May, Pleasantly Perfect is the picture of brute force, fast and dangerous when roused.

"You don't know how big he is until you walk right up to him and look up," Mandella said. "That's because everything he's got blends so well."

As he spoke, Pleasantly Perfect was blissed out at the back of his stall, eyes half lowered as Correa worked beneath him in the deep straw.

"Look at him," Mandella said. "I don't know where his mind goes, but he loves it when Humberto takes care of his feet.

"You know, I really have become attached to him," Mandella added. "We've had a lot of horses go through tough times and come back. But they don't get any lower or any higher than what this guy has gone through. I'll really miss him."