03/04/2004 12:00AM

To make Solis smile, say Malek

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ARCADIA, Calif. - These are strange days indeed at venerable Santa Anita Park, with one foot ankle deep in a history-rich past and the other planted firmly in the wacky world of modern sports entertainment.

Handle is down. Attendance is down. Fields are small and purses have been cut. Success stories lately have been few and far between, unless you count the court ruling announced earlier this week that gave the track a disputed 2.36 acres of valuable parking lot real estate, or perhaps the recent announcement that Santa Anita has been honored by the California Water Environment Association for its pre-treatment of backstretch waste and its channeling of storm water run-off.

A win is a win.

Thank goodness, though, for a day like Saturday, when the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap will anchor an 11-race program that brings back memories of the way it used to be. The fields are full. The stakes are choice. And the Handicap itself will be given the respect it is due with a live broadcast on the local Fox Sports Network.

It should come as no surprise that Richard Mandella and his go-to rider, Alex Solis, stand tall over the proceedings with Handicap favorite Pleasantly Perfect. Solis is having a career meet, well on his way to a fourth Santa Anita championship, while Mandella's presence in the Handicap has become as reliable as the dawn.

Let the record show that, since 1994, Mandella has produced at least one well-meant starter in the Handicap every year except 2001, when reigning Horse of the Year Tiznow won by five, so why bother?

In 1997, Mandella's horses finished an unprecedented one-two-three when Siphon defeated Sandpit and Gentlemen. There were also close seconds with Event of the Year in 1999 and Best Pal in 1995. Last year, Mandella finished third with Kudos and fourth with an earlier, far less commanding version of Pleasantly Perfect.

Solis, who rode Pleasantly Perfect in the 2003 Handicap, vows the difference in the horse is like night and day. Consecutive victories in the Goodwood, the Breeders' Cup Classic, and the San Antonio Handicap help make the case.

"Before, you had to ask him to do everything to be competitive," Solis said Thursday as he wrapped up morning work at Hollywood Park. "You had to pedal hard with him all the time, and that would wear both of us out.

"Now, he looks for the challenge," Solis went on. "Once you put him in the race, he will just cruise along until you ask him to run. And you don't have to ask him twice."

Solis knows his horse because he rarely lets him out of sight. He has become an integral part of the Mandella operation, reporting almost daily to work any number of key stakes horses under the care of Mandella and his top assistant, Becky Witzman.

He is not ungrateful. Last Sunday after the races, Solis treated the Mandella crew to a Chinese food feast at a local restaurant. Eventually, karaoke was involved and curfews were missed, but they had earned their fun.

"I made it to work the next morning," Solis said with a laugh. "But before I went I called Becky first to make sure everybody showed up at the barn. I know who the boss would have blamed."

Solis, who turns 40 on March 25, has ridden in 14 Santa Anita Handicaps. And while his partners have included such stars as Criminal Type, Dare and Go, Pleasant Tap, and Bienamado, it is the 1998 running that Solis cherishes most. Never mind that it was a public relations nightmare.

Events leading up to the '98 Handicap led fans and management to believe that the race might be one of the all-time greats. On consecutive days, in their final preps for the big one, Silver Charm won the Strub Stakes and Gentlemen won the San Antonio, both of them looking like the second coming of Citation.

Souvenir "showdown" posters were printed with the two horses nose to nose. Santa Anita's publicity machine cranked into high gear, flogging the looming duel in every corner of the media. A mini-drama played out in parallel, entitled "Gary's Choice," since Gary Stevens was the regular rider for both Silver Charm and Gentlemen.

Stevens stayed with Silver Charm, then Silver Charm stayed in the barn when Bob Baffert scratched the day before the race, blaming a sore foot. Ridden by Pat Day, Gentlemen showed up in name only - he finished last of four at 1-20 in the betting - while Mandella won the race anyway with his other South American, Malek.

"Malek, Malek, Malek," Solis chanted. "I love to say the name, because it brings back nothing but good memories. I know there were those two really top horses in the race, but I remember how much I liked the way he had been training. I thought he had a chance."

Every so often, the game needs a cold slap in the face like the 1998 Santa Anita Handicap, just to keep folks on their toes. Pleasantly Perfect certainly looks the part of a winner on Saturday, but Solis will be the last guy to get cocky about an outcome.

"That's the part of the game that is so fun," Solis said. "Anything can happen."