08/19/2004 11:00PM

Pleasantly Perfect back at his game

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Pleasantly Perfect will concede nothing Sunday when he tries to restore his reputation in the Grade 1 at Del Mar. The world's top-ranked dirt horse suffered an unexpected loss in his comeback three weeks ago, but trainer Richard Mandella suggests not to worry.

"I'd have preferred to keep winning, but I think we straightened it out," Mandella said. "The race did him good, and tightened him up a little. It took the edge off." The Aug. 1 San Diego Handicap was Pleasantly Perfect's first start since winning the Dubai World Cup in March, and his first loss following four wins, including the Breeders' Cup Classic. The comeback loss was excusable, and the rules change Sunday.

In the $1 million Pacific Classic, seven others will play Pleasantly Perfect's game. After conceding six to 10 pounds in his return, he carries the same weight, 124 pounds, Sunday as his rivals. After racing the less-than-ideal distance of 1 1/16 miles in his return, Pleasantly Perfect stretches back to his preferred distance of 1 1/4 miles. He has a prep, good works, a new rider, and a better plan.

Pleasantly Perfect was over-cranked by a 34.60-second work days before the San Diego. Instead of his preferred come-from-behind style, he engaged in a pace duel.

"I jazzed him up - it was a mistake in training," Mandella admitted. He said Pleasantly Perfect "needs to run his kind of race, sit back and make one run."

Jerry Bailey rides Pleasantly Perfect, who will need every bit of the short, 919-foot Del Mar stretch to wear down Hollywood Gold Cup winner Total Impact, Grade 1 winner Perfect Drift, front-runners During and Night Patrol, and three closers - unbeaten San Diego winner Choctaw Nation, Colonial Colony, and El Elogiado.

Post time for the Pacific Classic (race 8 of 10) is 4:46 p.m. Pacific; first post is an hour early, at 1 p.m. A $1 million pick six pool is guaranteed on races 5-10. The Pacific Classic will be televised live by ESPN2 in a one-hour telecast that begins at 4, and if the real Pleasantly Perfect shows up, the race could be a formality.

A 6-year-old owned by Gerald Ford, Pleasantly Perfect has won eight races and $6.7 million from 16 starts, yet the 101 Beyer Figure he earned in his return was his lowest in two years. That was merely a prep race, however, and it unfolded counter to the horse's preferred style. Mandella and Bailey will limit the prerace strategy.

"There isn't going to be a lot of talking," Mandella said. "[Bailey] recognizes the horse needs to settle back."

Pleasantly Perfect will try to become just the second winning favorite in the 14-year history of the Pacific Classic, and even Mandella acknowledges, "Del Mar can be a little quirky."

The Pacific Classic also tends to favor speed, which may benefit Hollywood Gold Cup winner Total Impact, trained by Laura de Seroux. "I'm not saying that we are going to slay the dragon, but we're in with a chance," de Seroux said.

Night Patrol and During are expected to contest the pace, with Total Impact and jockey Mike Smith tucked in third position. A best-case scenario, according to

de Seroux, would be "forwardly placed a couple lengths off the speed, relaxed, not pressing, and get the early jump. I don't think the two horses that are going to be out in front are going to stay the trip."

Total Impact employed similar tactics July 10 in winning the Hollywood Gold Cup, and has worked sensationally since then over the Del Mar track. A 6-year-old with five wins and earnings of $1.1 million, Total Impact figures to get the first run when the pacesetters began to tire. The 109 Beyer that Total Impact earned last out makes him one of the fastest in the field.

On recent speed figures, no horse is faster than Perfect Drift, who earned a 113 Beyer last time and a 110 before that. Trainer Murray Johnson suggested that the five races in which Perfect Drift has run since April could provide an advantage over Pleasantly Perfect, who is making just his second start back.

Perfect Drift has improved in two starts since undergoing minor surgery called a myectomy to correct a breathing problem. But it has not corrected the gelding's tendency to hang. For that, Johnson will count on jockey Pat Day to "reach down into his bag of tricks." Perfect Drift has won nine races and $2.5 million from 23 starts.

The wacky upset candidate is Night Patrol, who went to his nose at the start of the San Diego.

"The race is shaping up like I'm supposed to be on the lead," trainer Marcelo Polanco said, "but I'm going to let [Tyler] Baze make that decision."