03/08/2004 1:00AM

Great feats from a stop-and-go career


NEW YORK - Sometimes it is easy to forget that this is really a game of inches. Winning or losing a photo is the most literal example. But there are other, more figurative cases, like your horse getting beaten to a hole between opponents, or the one degree Fahrenheit that spells the difference between a healthy horse and one who is getting sick, and who can get a lot sicker by performing.

The latter is the scenario that may cost Pleasantly Perfect the winning share of a staggering $7 million in purses just this month. On Friday, Pleasantly Perfect was detected as having a low-grade fever, which forced his withdrawal from Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap, a $1 million race he probably would have been 4-5 to win, and a race he very likely would have won. Surely, it was only good care that uncovered Pleasantly Perfect's temperature, and it makes you wonder how many other horses - less prominent horses - lose races at tracks every day all over the country that they probably should have won because they aren't cared for as well.

Pleasantly Perfect's temperature has also put in jeopardy his trip halfway across the world later this month to the Dubai World Cup. This could be a blessing in disguise, because history tells us the majority of American horses who go to Dubai for the World Cup are never the same afterward. Then again, I've never been in the position of having an outstanding chance to take down most of a $6 million pot, like the connections of Pleasantly Perfect are this year.

This latest episode with Pleasantly Perfect makes one wonder what this horse may have accomplished had he any luck, which may sound funny for a horse who has earned more than $3 million. But it's true. He had an excellent chance to win the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park, but wasn't able to run because of Lasix regulations in Illinois. And he missed much of last season because of injury.

Of course, the flip side meant that he was a fresh horse in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic at his home track of Santa Anita, and needed all of that freshness to run down a determined Medaglia d'Oro. Nevertheless, the fact that Pleasantly Perfect is a 6-year-old who has run only 14 times illustrates how his career has been compromised by fits and starts.

Not to take anything away from Southern Image, a win machine who was very game winning Saturday's Big Cap at a 1 1/4-mile distance that is quite likely beyond his best, and runner-up Island Fashion, who was courageous in her attempt to become the first female ever to win the Big Cap, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would legitimately think a healthy Pleasantly Perfect wouldn't have won Saturday. His San Antonio victory in late January confirmed he is at the peak of his powers, and the final quarter-mile of 26.27 seconds that Southern Image required to hold the lead Saturday suggests that Pleasantly Perfect would have won by as many lengths as he would have liked.

Two preps not enough for Lion Heart

The first Kentucky Derby prep over the weekend was Saturday's San Rafael at Santa Anita, and at the risk of overlooking Imperialism, who complimented his victory in last month's San Vicente with another off-the-pace decision, runner-up Lion Heart showed me more in narrow defeat than he did in all three of his blowout victories last year.

In his first start since his score in the Hollywood Futurity in December, Lion Heart disputed a strong pace (22.67, 45.71) while being caught four wide on the first turn and almost that wide on the far turn. Lion Heart was still good enough to open a clear lead in upper stretch, only to be nailed by a sharp opponent who had the edge pace-wise and in terms of recent activity.

The one problem with Lion Heart is that next month's Santa Anita Derby will be his only other prep for the Kentucky Derby. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby off only two preps was Sunny's Halo 21 years ago, and before that, you have to go back another 57 years to Jet Pilot. Two preps weren't enough for Point Given, and as promising as Lion Heart may be, there is no reason to think two preps will be enough for him, or any of his other contemporaries.

The other big Derby prep of the weekend was Sunday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, and Wimbledon's victory over Borrego, and favored Gradepoint's ineffective performance, suggested that the Western 3-year-olds, who to this point had been widely considered a notch below their contemporaries in the East, may be better than originally regarded.

Wimbledon won decisively, even though he was stepping up off a victory over maidens. In his prior two unsuccessful attempts to post his first win, he had finished behind Quintons Gold Rush and Spellbinder. Those two both ran in the San Rafael, and they struggled, with Quintons Gold Rush finishing a well-beaten fourth (albeit after a wide trip), and Spellbinder winding up a distant ninth.