10/01/2003 11:00PM

It's Pleasantly Perfect's comeback

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Benoit & Associates
Pleasantly Perfect defends his title in the Grade 2 Goodwood at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting on Saturday.

After winning last year's Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap, Pleasantly Perfect appeared to be one of the rising stars in the game, and a significant contender for the Breeders' Cup Classic three weeks later. But little has gone right since he crossed the wire.

First, he bled from the nostrils in the postrace test barn, a development that, under the Illinois rules of racing, prevented him from running in the Classic at Arlington Park. Given a break, Pleasantly Perfect was pointed for the Santa Anita Handicap last winter, but managed to finish only fourth in that race after one nondescript tune-up.

He has not raced since. Minor nagging injuries kept Pleasantly Perfect on the sidelines through the summer. In recent weeks, however, the 5-year-old son of Pleasant Colony has trained as sharply as he did last fall, giving trainer Richard Mandella a chance to erase in three weeks all the frustration of the past 12 months.

Pleasantly Perfect returns to the races on Saturday at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting to both defend his title in the Grade 2 Goodwood and set up for the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic here three weeks later. It is a position Pleasantly Perfect seemed certain to be in when the year began, but which was far from assured only four months ago.

"Once he settled in at Del Mar, he just got good again," Mandella said Thursday morning. "He was too far behind to race before now. I didn't even know if he'd make this race, because he couldn't have any more setbacks. But then things started rolling."

The 1 1/8-mile Goodwood drew a field of eight, including Toccet, one of last year's elite 2-year-olds, whose 2003 campaign has been as abbreviated as Pleasantly Perfect's. Top West Coast stakes winners Grey Memo, Joey Franco, and Reba's Gold are among the main contenders. Grey Memo and Joey Franco are not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, and are therefore eligible for only $400,000 of the Goodwood's $500,000 purse.

The Goodwood is part of a stakes-filled weekend at Santa Anita for horses preparing for the Breeders' Cup. Saturday's 10-race card also features the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby for 3-year-old turf runners, including Devious Boy and Sweet Return, the two-three finishers in the Del Mar Derby. Sunday's card has three major races. The Grade 1 Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap for sprinters is expected to attract Captain Squire, Yankee Gentleman, and Zavata. The Grade 2 Norfolk Stakes for 2-year-olds is expected to include Siphonizer, the Del Mar Futurity winner, as well as Perfect Moon and Pomeroy. And the Grade 2 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile has Special Ring, who might be the best turf miler currently based in the United States.

The Goodwood takes on added importance this year in light of the unsettled nature of the Breeders' Cup Classic field. With Candy Ride and Empire Maker out, and Mineshaft yet to commit to the 1 1/4-mile race, the winner of the Goodwood could merit serious consideration, since he will already have won over the track on which this year's Classic will be run.

Pleasantly Perfect has turned in a series of strong workouts for his comeback, including a three-furlong blowout in 34 seconds on Thursday morning. It was the best time of 18 at the distance. Mandella believes Pleasantly Perfect is close to being as good as he was at this point last year.

"My hopes, and I think I'm close to them, is that he's as good as he can be this weekend, and that should put him in position to be ready to run a mile and a quarter in three weeks," Mandella said. "I think he's a natural mile-and-a-quarter horse. I think he's a top-notch horse."

Toccet is back in Southern California, where last year he won the Hollywood Futurity. He has run just twice since then. He was fifth last time out on a sloppy track in the Pennsylvania Derby. Dan Borislow, who owns Toccet, believes Toccet ran poorly because he was brought back too quickly, and was trained too aggressively, after a prep race only 13 days earlier.

"We breezed him too close to the race, and galloped him back too quick after his prep race, and he didn't handle the track," Borislow said. "He'll run better Saturday. He loves Santa Anita. He's taken to the surface well."

Joey Franco is stretching out another furlong following his victory last time out in the one-mile Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap. His owner, Jerry Frankel, preferred to run in the Goodwood rather than the Ancient Title, and trainer Darrell Vienna agreed.

"I knew that was his inclination, but I was not bound by that," Vienna said. "Mr. Frankel believes Joey Franco has the potential to be a stallion. He thought the risk versus reward of the Goodwood was much greater than the Ancient Title."