02/27/2003 12:00AM

Near-miss still haunts Mandella

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Kudos or Pleasantly Perfect could give trainer Richard Mandella his third win in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday. From his perspective, he should be gunning for a fourth.

Mandella swept the first three positions in 1997 with Siphon, Sandpit, and Gentlemen. The following year, he sent out Malek, who upset the heavily favored Gentlemen in a small field.

The race that still irks Mandella came in 1995, when the mighty Best Pal fell a head short of catching the front-running longshot Urgent Request.

"One of my biggest frustrations was that Best Pal got beat a head," Mandella said. "I wanted him to win so bad. He ran so well as an older horse. I was so mad."

Kudos and Pleasantly Perfect do not have the same following as Best Pal, but both could have outstanding years. Each won major races in 2002 - Kudos captured the Oaklawn Handicap and Pleasantly Perfect scored in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap.

The $6 million Dubai World Cup could follow the Big Cap for Pleasantly Perfect, pending the results on Saturday and the possible war in the Middle East.

In his only start this year, Pleasantly Perfect was third to Congaree in the San Antonio Handicap on March 2. Congaree will be a heavy favorite in Saturday's Big Cap.

"I think Pleasantly Perfect is turning into a top-notch horse," Mandella said. "He needed the race a bit but showed his class. I thought I had him tuned in a little better than I did."

A victory would give Mandella a piece of Big Cap history. He is stabled in the same barn at Santa Anita that was home to Charlie Whittingham's stable. Whittingham holds the record for most wins in the Big Cap by a trainer - nine from 1957 to 1993. Next on that list is Ron McAnally with three, followed by several trainers tied with two.

Smirk ready for U.S. debut

Over the winter, Smirk, the winner of a major handicap last summer in England, was the subject of several sale inquiries.

Owner Michael Tabor has not yet made any deal to sell Smirk but is chasing one of the goals that some of the potential owners had in mind.

Saturday, Smirk makes his U.S. debut in the $400,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf at Santa Anita. There are 12 entrants in the Kilroe Mile, but only Smirk is based outside of Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. He arrived from England on Monday.

Trained by David Elsworth, the 5-year-old Smirk has not raced since November, but his form last year will make him competitive. Last August, Smirk won the 21-runner William Hill Mile Handicap at the prestigious Goodwood meeting.

"He runs well fresh," Elsworth said. "It's a matter of whether we can get him to perform to his level after shipping."

Elsworth trained Desert Orchid, the popular gray who won the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup. The previous year, Elsworth saddled Rhyme N Reason to a victory in the Grand National over 4 1/2 miles.

In recent years, Elsworth has concentrated on flat horses, keeping only a few steeplechase horses at his training farm, located south of London.

Edgar Prado, who is riding Milwaukee Brew in Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, will ride Smirk.

"I think having an American jockey is an advantage," Elsworth said. "If we had brought an English jockey, it would be new territory for him. He's an uncomplicated horse."

Smirk's future is unclear. Elsworth said a decision will be made after the race whether Smirk remains in the U.S. or returns to England.

Meguial may soon face 'big girls'

Meguial, a two-length winner of a one-mile allowance race for fillies and mares on Wednesday, may have graded stakes in her future, trainer Doug O'Neill said.

A 4-year-old Argentine-bred filly, Meguial led or disputed the lead throughout and pulled clear in early stretch. She was bought late last year by David Lanzman, the owner of 2001 Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Squirtle Squirt.

"We bought her with the hope that she will be racing with the big girls," O'Neill said.

In Argentina, Meguial had one win in five starts, but finished second or third in three Group 1 races. O'Neill described the purchase price as "well into six figures."

"It was a great feeling to see her win," he said. "I don't have much experience paying that much for horses."

Flores chooses Atswhatimtalknbout

David Flores has been riding both Domestic Dispute, who most recently won the Santa Catalina Stakes, and Atswhatimtalknbout, an impressive allowance winner here last weekend. With both 3-year-olds on course to compete in the San Felipe Stakes on March 16, Flores needed to make a choice.

His agent, Jim Pegram, was hoping to wait as long as possible. But he had been given a deadline of Wednesday by Bob Baffert, who trains Domestic Dispute. Pegram managed to avoid making a choice for an additional 24 hours, but on Thursday informed Baffert that Flores would abandon the mount on Domestic Dispute in favor of riding Atswhatimtalknbout.

Had the choice been a prop bet, Atswhatimtalknbout would have been a distant second choice. Domestic Dispute is more accomplished at this point, and Flores rides far more horses for Baffert than he does for Ron Ellis, who trains Atswhatimtalknbout. The choice speaks volumes about what Flores and Pegram think of Atswhatimtalknbout's potential.

Baffert did not take long to find a replacement. He said Jerry Bailey would ride Domestic Dispute in the San Felipe. Ron Anderson, Bailey's agent, had put in a call to both Baffert and Ellis in hopes of picking up whichever mount came open.

Omega Code will be back soon

The foot bruise that kept Omega Code from entering Saturday's San Rafael Stakes is minor, and the colt should be able compete in the next couple of weeks, according to Jeff Siegel, the vice president of the Team Valor syndicate that recently purchased a 75-percent interest in Omega Code.

"It's nothing serious," Siegel said.

Siegel, and Team Valor president Barry Irwin, both said that Omega Code will run next in either the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on March 9, or the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 16. The Gotham is a one-turn mile, a situation Irwin finds more appealing than the El Camino Real Derby.

"We didn't buy this horse to be a Kentucky Derby horse," Irwin said. "We bought him to be a top sprinter who maybe can get a mile this year."

* Trainer Bruce Headley on Thursday confirmed that Kona Gold, the former champion sprinter, is passing Sunday's $200,000 San Carlos Handicap. The winner of the El Conejo Handicap at this meeting, Kona Gold will be pointed for the Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap over 6 1/2 furlongs on March 29 or a sprint at the Keeneland meeting in April.

* Jockey Joe Steiner is expected to miss six weeks because of injuries resulting from a one-horse spill in Wednesday's sixth race. Steiner suffered a broken nose and heel, broken teeth, and a fractured bone below his eye that will require surgery, according to his wife, Jane. He will be hospitalized at Arcadia Methodist until the weekend, she said.

* Matt Garcia has been suspended for 10 days, beginning Sunday. Garcia's mount, Nlotsabutter, was disqualified after finishing first in Wednesday's sixth race for altering course without sufficient clearance.

* Vindication, the champion 2-year-old of 2002, has been transferred to Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, Calif., to recover from a suspensory injury. The injury was detected last month and will keep Vindication out of training until late spring. His connections, Padua Stable and trainer Bob Baffert, are hoping he can return to racing in the second half of the year.

* There will be no guaranteed pick six pool of $1 million on Saturday. In past years, the track had guaranteed a $1 million pool as a way to entice bettors to play the card. Track officials cited the increase in insurance premiums as a reason for not offering a guaranteed pool.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman